Black Future: The World's Ever-Increasing Hunger for Coal

By , Alexander Jung and

Coal-fired power stations are a major producer of the greenhouse gas CO2, but there is no alternative to the fuel in the near future. Energy companies are hoping that carbon capture and storage technologies may be the answer, but many local residents don't want CO2 stored under their backyards.

Photo Gallery: Unavoidable Coal Photos

When Rolf Martin Schmitz, a manager with the German energy giant RWE, drove to the North Sea resort island of Sylt last summer, he immediately noticed the signs. Along the side of roads throughout the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, he was greeted by images of skulls. Residents had installed the billboards to protest against underground storage sites for carbon dioxide that may be built in the region.

Citizens fear dangerous leaks of the gas, which can be hazardous at high concentrations, and other health risks. Schmitz, on the other hand, is worried about the future of his company.

Schmitz is the head of the domestic operations of RWE, Germany's second-largest electricity producer, whose most important energy source is coal. Burning the material creates large amounts of the greenhouse gas CO2. Energy companies are working at full speed to develop so-called carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which involves capturing CO2 and storing it underground. Schmitz believes that the technology provides a way to solve the emissions problem associated with coal-fired power plants.

Fierce Resistance

For Schmitz, it is incomprehensible that the planned gas storage facilities are encountering so much resistance, particularly as there have been underground natural gas storage facilities in northern Germany for decades, which have never been viewed as a hazard. "Suddenly it's the work of the devil," he says in astonishment.

As of last Wednesday, Schmitz could feel somewhat relieved. That was when German Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle, a member of the pro-business FDP, and Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, who belongs to the conservative CDU, unveiled, in a moment of rare harmony, a bill to regulate the construction of CO2 storage facilities. Under the new legislation, utilities will be able to try out the new technology, at least in a few pilot facilities. Röttgen called it an "important contribution to enhancing climate protection," while Brüderle promised that the technology "couldn't be safer."

The energy companies also see Berlin's green light for CCS technology as a signal that coal-generated electricity has a future in Germany once again. Almost half of all electricity generated in Germany comes from coal, and the percentage is even higher in other countries. In China, for example, it's more than 80 percent, and demand there is only expected to grow.

Increasing Demand

Coal is currently experiencing a phenomenal comeback everywhere. Demand has grown considerably, making coal the second-most important energy source worldwide, after oil. Billions of people depend on coal for their electricity supply.

Experts at the International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris estimate that demand for coal will increase in the next two decades by more than for any other energy source except wind and solar power, from the current level of about 6.7 billion tons per year to almost 10 billion tons in 2030. China and India are mainly responsible for the coal boom, with the two countries already accounting for more than half of global demand. According to the IEA, they will have more than doubled their coal consumption by 2030. Coal provides them with electricity, and electricity is the elixir for progress and prosperity. In China, a new coal power plant is placed into service about once a week.

Coal drives machines, illuminates apartments and houses, heats stoves and moves high-speed trains. The raw material that made industrialization possible in the 19th century remains an essential element of modern life in the 21st century.

Politicians around the world, especially in Germany, can enthuse as much as they want about the potential benefits of renewable energy sources, but when the German government unveils its new energy strategy in the coming months, it too will include coal as part of the energy mix. The dirty truth is that the future of the world's energy supply is black. Given the alternatives, what else can it be?

Plentiful and Cheap

Many people feel that nuclear power is too dangerous. Crude oil is getting more and more difficult and expensive to produce. Natural gas creates a dependency on temperamental suppliers. And solar, wind and water are not sufficiently developed yet to provide a large share of the energy supply. Which leaves tried-and-tested coal.

No other fossil fuel is available in such large quantities; current coal reserves will last for generations. No fossil fuel is as comparatively cheap. It costs only about 5 euro cents (around 6 US cents) to generate a kilowatt-hour of electricity from coal, compared with about 40 cents for solar power. And no fossil fuel is as widely distributed. Every continent has adequate reserves and, unlike oil, most of those reserves are found in regions which are relatively stable in geopolitical terms, such as North America, Europe and Australia.

But no other raw material is as devastating to the environment when used. Coal is the worst climate killer in the history of humanity.

Coal comes with a high environmental price. Almost one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of carbon dioxide is emitted to generate one kilowatt-hour of electricity from black coal, and emissions from lignite are even higher. By comparison, a modern gas power plant emits about 350 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour generated, while nuclear power is responsible for only about 30 grams.

In other words, it isn't geology that defines the limits of growth. Instead, environmental concerns raise doubts as to the future viability of the fuel. "Coal is the environmental problem of the 21st century," says Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Unless, of course, we can find a way to use this energy source without it destroying the environment. Is something like clean coal even conceivable?


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Graphic: Global consumption of selected energy sources Zoom

Graphic: Global consumption of selected energy sources

Graphic: Percentage of electricity generated from coal Zoom

Graphic: Percentage of electricity generated from coal