Demand for cheap electricity will continue to drive consumption of coal, according to a recent report by Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Energy Policy and the Environment.
The report found that between 1990 and 2010, around 832 million people, mostly in developing countries, gained access to electricity thanks to coal. Compared to renewables such as solar or wind, coal was responsible for providing electricity to 13 times as many people who previously lacked it.
Furthermore, Bryce writes, coal will remain dominant in the developed world, too. In 2013, coal accounted for about 30 percent of global energy usage, second only to oil, which accounted for just over 32 percent. Natural gas accounted for nearly 24 percent of energy. Renewables continue to lag far behind: wind makes up 1.1 percent of worldwide energy use, geothermal and biomass make up 0.9 percent, and solar accounts for a measly 0.2 percent.
Given the high use of coal and the projection that coal use will continue to grow, the report comes to the bleak conclusion that it is “highly unlikely that global carbon-dioxide emissions will fall anytime soon.”
Other reports have found similar trends in coal usage. Last year, the International Energy Agency forecast in a market report about coal that demand for the fossil fuel would grow at an average rate of 2.3 percent per year through 2018.
At the time, the IEA’s executive director Maria van der Hoeven remarked that “like it or not, coal is here to stay for a long time.” She added that “coal is abundant and geopolitically secure and coal-fired power plants are easily integrated into existing power systems.” Nonetheless, “coal in its current form is simply unsustainable.” Since 2000, more than 60 percent of the increase in global CO2 emissions has been due to burning coal for electricity and heat, she said.
Despite the large role coal will play in the world’s energy mix, some countries are looking to limit its growth.
In India, where an estimated 400 million people lack access to electricity, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to bring electricity to the entire population of 1.2 billion within the next five years. Coal India Limited, a state owned corporation and the world’s largest coal producer, currently supplies the majority of energy needs to India, about half of which is powered by coal. Nonetheless, the company is also investing in solar and plans to build solar plants with the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy that will have a combined energy generating capacity of 1,000 megawatts.
Additionally, China’s state media has said that Beijing will ban the use of coal in six districts by the end of 2020. China’s policies will help slow, but not halt, coal demand, according to the IEA report.
The Manhattan Institute’s Bryce writes that while renewable energy sources are growing, their output is still minuscule when compared to coal. In 2013, global wind energy grew by 21 percent, solar grew 33 percent, and coal only by 3 percent. But, notes Bryce, the key issue is scale.
Together, the increase of solar and wind energy consumption accounted for 620,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day – a drop in the bucket when compared to the growth in coal consumption, which amounted to around 2 million barrels of oil equivalent per day.