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The renaissance of coal

30 November 2015

Coal was the primary fuel of the industrial revolution.

Lumps of the dark combustible rock-like substance were a convenient and dense form of energy that was used to fuel the boilers of industry and provide heat for the homes of workers.

When heated in the absence of oxygen, coal also released a gas which could be reticulated through pipes to a network of eager consumers who used it for lighting, heating and cooking.

Even crucial forms of transport, in the form of trains, were powered by coal.

Without coal, mankind would still be engaged in subsistence living.

However, coal was not without its problems.

Most forms of coal combustion produced hideous amounts of pollution.

Acrid smoke, toxic ash and massive levels of CO2 emissions have contributed to create significant environmental damage as a result of the use of coal as a fuel.

Of course the 20th century saw coal usurped as the "fuel de jour" by oil-based products.

Heavy and light distillates of crude oil delivered more energy per cubic measure, the convenience of a liquid and the ability to power the promising new internal combustion engine.

Without the shift to oil-based fuels we wouldn't have aircraft or seen the massive growth in cars and trucks as effective transport vehicles.

Petrol, diesel, kerosene and other oil-based fuels revolutionised the world again and created unheard of levels of personal freedoms and readily available energy. In the face of this, coal was pushed onto the back-burner and began to fall from favour.

As the board of Solid Energy know, by the second decade of the 21st century, coal was decidedly out of fashion.

As the world looks for ever-cleaner and more sustainable energy sources, coal has too many black-marks against it to compete.

Or does it?

Well believe it or not, coal is beginning to enjoy a renaissance and the reasons for that are perhaps not what you'd expect.

In the USA, significant amounts (39% as of 2014) of their electricity generation is based on coal as a fuel -- this is more than twice the amount generated by nuclear sources.

The imminent growth of electric vehicles (EVs) looks set to see a significant growth in demand for electrical energy and that will mean the burning of even more coal.

How ironic is it that the cleanest form of transport will create a surge in consumption of coal, a fuel widely criticised for its environmental impact and lack of sustainability.

Although like most countries, the USA has poured a lot of money into the creation of renewable energy resources, these still constitute just 7% of the total generation capacity in that country and it's unlikely this number will rise significantly in the near future.

It would appear therefore, that EVs could be a real boon to the coal industry -- hiking demand -- especially if the miners are driving to work in Teslas or other EVs.

One can't help but wonder therefore, whether we ought to slow down the roll-out of EVs, at least in countries such as the USA where electricity generation is such a "dirty" affair.

Of course here in NZ we should be rolling out EVs as quickly as we can, given that a very healthy 70% of our electricity supply comes from renewable sources.

With politicians debating the future of global warming in France right now, I certainly hope they're paying attention to the effect that apparently "green" transport choices may actually have on their total CO2 emissions. I wonder how many of those present actually realise that EVs may not be a silver bullet in all countries -- it really will depend on where their electricity comes from.

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