Working in the energy sector in China, even focusing on renewable energy as I am, one can hardly be unaware of the incredible importance of coal. For better or for worse, China has a huge amount of coal reserves, and it is bent on making use of them. Indeed, I was shocked to learn that coal production approximately doubled in China between 2000 and 2005. (I am still unable to grasp the speed at which things change in this country …)
Coal is a fairly unpleasant industry on virtually every level – from mining operations that ruin the landscape and miners’ health to the ultimate production of carbon dioxide that is destabilizing the climate. In China, the statistics for coal mining deaths are particularly staggering: 20 mine deaths per day in 2005. As most environmentalists do, I have long hoped that we will be able to quickly turn away from this dirty energy source to renewables and energy efficiency. How likely is that to happen in the near future though?
I was recently looking at an interesting report analyzing recent trends in renewable energy markets and policies (see http://www.martinot.info/Martinot_Environment.pdf). The report points out some facts that were news to me and probably to many other people: for example, the installed capacity of renewable energy (excluding large hydropower) is nearly half that of nuclear power (although it only generates about one-fifth of the electricity of nuclear because it is more intermittent); or, “30 percent of all gasoline sold in the United States has ethanol blended with it.” Indeed, it seems that the renewable energy industry, unbeknownst to many policymakers who still view it as prohibitively expensive, is making significant progress. The report concludes that optimistic scenarios of getting 40-50% of our energy from renewable sources by 2050 are looking more and more plausible.
But, while this is good news, we also have to remember that energy consumption will also likely increase drastically during this period. A growth rate in energy consumption of 1.4% (less than the current rate of 1.5%) would lead to a doubling of energy consumption by 2050. Currently, we get 77% of our energy from fossil fuels, 6% from nuclear, and 17% from renewables (including large hydropower). So if we assume that nuclear energy remains constant over the next fifty years, even if renewables account for 50% of total energy by 2050, we will still require about a 25% increase in fossil fuel consumption.
The above – very, very rough – analysis suggests that if we want to make a serious dent in coal consumption, we will need a broader social transformation than a conversion of our primary energy supply to more renewables. Energy efficiency clearly has a huge role to play. And by energy efficiency, I don’t mean just improving fuel economy standards or power plant efficiencies, but also lifestyle changes – improved public transport, better designed cities, and more locally-based economies.