Heinberg on China Coal Future

Posted: May 4th, 2010 by: h2

Not just China’s, of course.

Richard Heinberg is fast evolving into a fairly solid researcher, doing work that few others are really willing or able to do. Not very glamorous, not exciting, just solid.

So check out his latest piece on the future, and present, of Chinese coal consumption/production China’s Coal Bubble…and how it will deflate U.S. efforts to develop “clean coal” .

He’s getting to be a pretty good systems thinker in my opinion, though he’ll never win any awards for exciting writing, but that’s probably for the best, these subjects really require fairly unemotional treatment.

Here’s a few snippets:

It is true of course that China’s coal consumption is enormous and growing, and that coal is the basis of the Chinese economy, fueling over 80 percent of electricity generation. China’s coal output grew an astonishing 28.1 percent from first quarter 2009 to first quarter 2010, to over 750 million metric tons consumed in just the past three months. But this is a situation that is patently unsustainable—not just because of the carbon emissions it entails, but because China simply doesn’t have enough coal to continue growing its consumption much longer.

Start with the stats and do some simple math. China is now mining and burning over three billion tons of coal per year. If the nation’s coal consumption grows at, say, seven percent per year, that means consumption will double in ten years (its annual growth rate was actually over nine percent in one or two of the last several years, implying a doubling every eight years—but let’s be conservative and assume seven percent growth). In that case, by 2020 China would be using about six billion tons per annum.

And then he takes a look at the resources required simply to use coal, like water. In case you don’t follow such things, China is already facing massive water shortages, the Yellow River at certain times of the year now already is basically dry by the time it hits the end of its course.

Can you say ‘non-sustainable’ means, cannot be sustained? Good, I thought you could. And also the term ‘sustainable’ isn’t one of several choices we can take, a non-sustainable but still sustained future being another viable option. Non-sustainable means just what it says, not capable of being sustained, not one of several choices.

By the way, we have a lot of equilibrium state examples of very sustainable human social practices. Hint: none are industrial, none are based on capitalism or communism. Evo Morales is worth listening to though, although I’ve yet to hear him discuss the overpopulation of his own country, Bolivia…. Remember, the only thing that grows forever is cancer in the real world, doesn’t matter if you’re first or third world, the reality is the same. Especially as your nation’s resources get increasingly strained by global warming and local over-population.

It takes other resources to consume coal; crucially, water is needed to run coal power plants. A typical 500-megawatt coal-fired power plant uses about 2.2 billion gallons of water each year to create steam for turning its turbines—enough water to support a city of 250,000 people. In recent months droughts have wracked huge sections of China, idling hydroelectric dams and stoking demand for coal. If the droughts recur and worsen (as climate-change scenarios suggest), at some point nuclear and coal power plants will be forced to shut down as well, leading to the kinds of electricity supply problems that are already plaguing Pakistan and dozens of other nations, where the lights are off for hours each day even in the largest cities.

Then the big one, resource use versus growth rates, vs reserves. And he doesn’t really even get into the reality that all new coal almost now mined has a significantly lower energy content than the old black stuff we think of. That’s known as ‘brown coal’, I think it’s called lignite, don’t remember, but it takes a lot more of it to produce the same amount of heat as high grade coal. And the high grade stuff, being best, is of course what they, we, and anyone else using coal, used up first. Leaving the bad stuff, that is.

The same exact situation exists with oil. The best oil, known as light sweet crude, is thin, flows easily, has a low sulphur content (that’s what the term ‘sweet’ means, as opposed to ‘sour’, which means high sulphur content), and is very easy to refine. We are now basically almost completely out of easily accessible sweet crude, leaving heavy oils, oil sands, bitumin, sour heavy stuff, which is basically what composes virtually all of Saudi Arabia’s alleged ‘extra capacity’.

Oil and coal, that is, today, are in almost the exact same position re reserves, quality, return on energy invested to produce, and total future amount available for industrial economies. Very short time periods, to be precise.

According to the World Coal Institute, China has reserves totaling a little over 110 billion tons. That’s almost 37 years’ worth of coal at current rates of consumption (i.e., three billion tons per year). But to assume that China won’t have coal supply problems until 37 years have passed is also to assume two absurdities: that Chinese demand, production, and consumption of coal will remain constant; and that after maintaining this steady rate of extraction and consumption for 37 years, China will one day suddenly discover that its coal has run out.

In the real world, China’s demand for coal is expected to grow. Adding ten percent annual consumption growth to the forecast would yield a reserves lifetime of only 16 years. While a sustained rate of growth this high is extremely unlikely, the principle is worth keeping in mind.

Also in the real world, production profiles plotted over time assume the shape of a distorted bell curve that starts at zero and ends at zero, with a peak somewhere in between. We know this is true for coal extraction because several regions in the world have already seen a peak and substantial decline of extraction rates, while no region has so far managed to maintain a high, steady rate of production (or a growing rate of production) until reserves suddenly reached exhaustion. This means that China’s coal production will peak and begin to decline significantly sooner than reserves-to-production ratios (37 at steady rates, or 16 with ten percent annual growth) would suggest.

Heinberg is doing our work for us, mining the data and explaining what it really means to us, the world, and anyone foolish enough to believe iin the insane myth of perpetual growth and increased resource consumption. Time for a real change of values, anyone?

Economic growth requires energy, and China needs economic growth to maintain domestic political stability and international competitiveness. If there’s not enough coal to support the nation’s energy growth, then other options must be considered.

China is developing alternative energy sources; can these be brought on line fast enough to make a difference? Let’s do some numbers. China aims to have 100 gigawatts (GW) of wind power capacity by 2020, and the nation’s leaders plan to expand installed solar capacity to 20 GW during the same period. These are truly astonishing goals, and, if China even comes close to accomplishing them, it will become the world’s renewable energy leader. But there is a problem: total Chinese electricity generation capacity is 900 GW currently; with seven percent growth, that means the nation’s electricity demand in 2020 will be something like 1800 GW. Wind and solar together would supply less than seven percent of that. The only thing likely to boost that percentage much would be a dramatic reduction in growth of energy demand to, say, two percent annually.

The situation with nuclear power is similar: China has 11 atomic power plants now and is in the process of building 20 more, with a target of 60 GW of generating capacity, or possibly more, by 2020. But this will supply only between three and five percent of total electricity demand, depending on energy demand growth rates.

The conclusion is unsettling but inescapable: China’s reliance on coal cannot be significantly reduced as long as its demand for electrical power continues to grow at anything like current rates. And even if energy demand growth tapers off and alternative energy sources come on line quickly, the country’s ability to supply enough coal domestically will still be challenged.

And this covers the alleged ‘alternative energies’ that are supposed to enable a continuation of our pathologically insane idea that we can use up our ecosystem, kill our source, and then blithely go on as if it’s all fine. If you don’t understand it, I’ll make it clear: basically, non-debt based growth, in a capitalist system, requires an expansion of energy production and consumption. Failure to expand these leads to a failure of growth. Failure of growth for us began in about 1980, the time that global commodity production began to hit limits. We have staved off this failure by banking on future growth, ie, using debt based deficit spending, both as individuals taking on increased debt, larger and larger mortgages, as corporations fueling growth by aquisition (think junk bonds of the 80s, and everything since, all fueled by speculative debt.

We are now hitting primary resource constraints, specifically fossil fuels. No accident we are overheating the planet, we’re burning fossil fuels at insane rates. And don’t be fooled by nuclear proponents, the US today produces about 3 or 4 million pounds of uranium a year, but uses about 55 million pounds. See the problem? And currently, everyone is thinking to expand nuclear power, and thus, uranium consumption. The bands are tightening, slowly, surely.

Every year we try to maintain the status quo, is one less year we have to change direction, and one less year of final total commodity availability.

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