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Dwindling Coal Supply: Good for Environment, Bad for Economy

May 15, 2009 05:00 PM
by Haley A. Lovett
Estimates of the world’s coal supply may be five times too high, according to one researcher, making the need for renewable energy sources more important than ever.

Coal Demand and Supply May Be On the Decline

The recession and subsequent reduction in demand for electricity due to a decrease in production have put estimates for coal burning in the U.S. down approximately 2.3 percent in 2009, Reuters reported. Although power plants will still burn more than 1,000 million short tons of coal, U.S. coal exports may decrease around 14 percent, due to less demand globally.

But the global drop in demand is thought to be only temporary, with estimates that 2010 will bring U.S. coal exports back up to 2008 levels. How long countries can sustain the demand for coal is still up for debate, however.

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Although experts agree that our limited supply of oil will run dry, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has estimated that we’ve got plenty of coal left. However, according to Discovery News, one researcher believes otherwise.

David Rutledge of the California Institute of Technology looked at coal production patterns around the world. He found that the IPCC estimate of the coal supply may have included coal resources that would be extremely hard to extract, and that “national governments … have overestimated their reserves by a factor of four on average.” Rutledge thinks that worldwide coal production may peak “as early as 2025” and then decline.
And just as a recession brings a decrease in demand for coal, a decrease in supply of coal could bring an economic downturn if less production is possible.

But there may be a positive impact of less coal. James Murray of the University of Washington believes that the IPCC’s estimate of the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the coming years are overblown. Still, he warns that global warming is not a thing of the past. “We're still going to have global warming, and it's a serious threat,” Murray told Discovery News.

Related Topic: Alternative fuels

If the world begins to run out of coal and oil within the next few decades, what sources will provide energy? Luckily scientists are already working on a solution.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that nearly 20 percent of U.S. power could be supplied by wind energy by 2030, an estimate that seems reasonable based on the 45 percent increase in use of wind energy in 2008. Although wind power has a long way to go globally, the U.S. is currently the biggest producer of wind power in the world.

Algae was recently unveiled as a potential source of fuel, and also as a potential solution to carbon dioxide emissions in coal power plants. However, the expense of building a test plant and the cost of producing a gallon of “algae oil” may prevent the technology from being developed. Other possible sources of energy include landfill methane, tree fungus and car exhaust.

Car fuel has long been an area where alternative energies have been explored. Recently a racing team created a racecar out of environmentally friendly substances such as carrots, flax fiber, soybean oil and potato starch. The car is fueled by vegetable oil and waste chocolate and can go up to 125 mph. 

Reference: Fossil fuels


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