Pregnancy revisited or some thoughts on coal

Wandering, not quite by chance, into a luncheon meeting today, I listened while a VP of Peabody (the largest coal mining company) casually mentioned, in passing, the arrival of Peak Oil.  His talk dealt largely with the need that this will generate for coal, and the market, and the need for engineers that this engenders.  It was, you might say, a pleasant talk, given to an audience "in the trade" and his aim was to talk about the growing opportunities in the business and to re-assure those with long memories, that this time the market would be sustained for a long time.

What I thought notable was that the audience did not seem to grasp the impact that peak oil is going to have on the industries that, while related, do not themselves mine coal.  For them the market price and lesser availability of liquid fuels to give the power to their operations, will mean a significant increase in operational cost, and more pressure to be competitive, at a time when the market might otherwise appear glowing.

For much of the fossil materials extraction business the energy cost of operations has not, in large measure, been a major factor in controlling their production.  Much of the rock has been fragmented by chemical energy (explosives), where the EROEI equation becomes somewhat more difficult to generate. And while modern methods are increasingly using mechanical excavation, rather than explosives, it hasn't really been necessary to evaluate, to date, the change in the overall energies required. Nor has the change, and the resulting higher potential costs been factored into plans to make the operation more efficient. The rising costs of liquid energy are likely now to make those considerations significantly more important, and should lead to much closer evaluation of the technology and development of new ideas, some perhaps outside the box, to get the same amount of value from the ground, but at a lower energy cost.

It would be comforting to be able to say that there is now a plan to deal with this.  But the planning at the DoE had been to build this into concepts for the Mining Industry of the Future. That program, modest though it was, has now been zeroed out, and is gone, the experts moving to other fields.  Where now the funds for innovation?

Which was, where I came in.  Where the prevalent attitude was "Don't be silly, if it worked for our grandfathers it should be good enough for us, right!" In token of which it would also appear that the premier organization for spreading knowledge among the mining community (SME) is about to try emulating that odd bird in the Headmaster's study at Hogwarts. In the meanwhile, suggestions for change might perhaps be most fruitfully stacked around the corpse so as intensify the fire and speed the change.  There appears to be little audience for a more creative approach. An attitude which, I learn from Yankee's post is also held by some of our esteemed blogging colleagues.

I wrote the above  before seeing Yankee's post, and the direction to Crooked Timber and Ezra Klein. Those posts are in line with my opening, that these are wonderful days for the coal industry.  But unfortunately they completely confuse electric power generation and liquid/gaseous fuel use.

Neither author appears to understand the meaning of the Hirsch report.  We have 200 million cars and light trucks in this country - give or take - and they run on gasoline and diesel. You can't change them to electric cars in less than about 20 years.  We cannot generate significant auto fuels from coal for these cars in less than around 15 years given the time for permits and plant construction.  The crisis is likely to be upon us within the next five years (as I said even Peabody agrees with this). Folks we don't have time, there aren't enough engineers and thinking outside the box is not allowed.  If I knew their address I think I would be tempted to send some sand (oil of course) to our timbered and learned friends and suggest they bury their heads in it a little deeper.

Now this is not to say that there are not ideas that can provide some answers, but, as I've said before "you can't have a baby in a month by making nine women pregnant!" Those who have to solve these problems (are there many of us left?) might be getting a bit tired of the old saw that we have chatted about before that "technology will solve the problem." Without money, personnel and time it sure won't, and right now we don't have them (the Governor of Montana not withstanding).

Ah, well, it seems I might be getting a bit hot under the collar, and so it is time for HO to take a small break and to return to the land where the wind no longer blows free and gas is not. I wish I could promise that posting would continue with some regularity, but as have found for the past few years trying to find a hotel with wireless along the wall that Hadrian built is largely an exercise in futility.  Which I suppose is an excuse to spend a week on another hobby - the search for a good pint!

I was wondering, HO, if you had ever seen Gregson Vaux's Peak Coal analysis, which I believe he worked on as a consultant for the Dept. of Energy.  A summary was published here:

If so, I'd like to know what you think of it.

I'd second that request!  HO's report suggests that Peabody and others know we are headed in the direction of a lot more coal given peak oil and peak North American natural gas.  Since coal currently accounts for only one unit of equivalent energy for every three units of energy coming from oil and natural gas, the increased coal use could potentially be truly huge to cover: (1) growth in electrical demand currently supplied by coal, (2) additional growth to make up for reduction in natural gas electrical generation, and (3) yet additional growth for synfuels. Is it really practical to double or quadruple coal production in the next decade or two? This would have a disastrous effect on CO2 production given that current coal burning generates twice the CO2 per unit of energy that natural gas and oil do.  Eeesh.
I did a rough spreadsheet model that confirmed Gregson Vaux's conclusions.  Most people assume that coal is infinite.

You can download the spreadsheet I used here:

I am reminded of the New Yorker cartoon, where the chairman is addressing the board of directors, "Gentlemen, while the end of the world scenarios are quite grim, we have concluded that the pre-end of the world scenarios can be quite profitable."

The  coal story does once again point out that vast divergence that we are going to see between the fortunes of the energy producers and the energy consumers.

To the extent that you can, you need to move toward being a net energy and/or food producer.   The easiest thing to start with is energy conservation.  

The easiest way to be an energy producer is to buy some oil and gas stocks before the rush begins. Personally, I like two us companies, both sufficiently distant from gom hurricanes, that are rapidly growing production, net income and (unusually) reserves; ard and gmxr. As an aside, owning some energies makes one fairly philosophical about increasing gasoline and heating costs.
Reminds me of a cartoon a saw 20 years ago or so.  Two golfers are on the putting green.  In the background, a nuclear bomb is going off over the city.  "Hurry up and putt before the shock wave hits."
You are good at hiding your identity.
(Asked by a very un-hidden identity. )
Strange. You have always asked why people hide behind their monikers. Change of heart?
I wondered about the question and admiration of an ability to hide well.

I wonder about all this hiding due too a general lack of communication.

As I have mentioned before, if one has connections with any of several thousand large organizations (government, corporate, university) and if one's true opinions were known, one could expect:
  1. to be fired.
  2. a knife in the back.
  3. suspension at the very least.

If one is employed at a good job in a corrupt organization, one is well-advised to either remain silent or to conceal his or her identity.

For example, I would not want it generally known that I am actually a female Martian, because there is discrimination . . . :-)

And then it becomes a trend, hide or be uncool?
Of course I could be mistaken, Magnus, but I think prudence has much more to do with issue of "hiding" than does "coolness."

I admire those who reveal their identities, but I also recognize that because of this fact they must self-censor their postings or possibly suffer severe consequences.

That's funny with the two golfers. Sort of like two shuffleboard players on a cruise ship after hearing a <SLI-I-I-ICE!!!> and one saying "shoot before the ship tilts nose-down". (meanwhile an orchistra forms up and ship attendants re-arrange lounge chairs....)

Gotta hate it when that cruiseliner gets what a pilot could call an "attitude problem". (pun on purpose!)

Typically tough question; just what is the cross elasticity between coal and oil? For example there is less need to electrify the city night sky if people and goods can't fly/drive to the city. I guess this is why some say we don't need carbon taxes on coal since the economy will slow anyway. Based on the South Africa's example it seems unlikely synfuels will keep up with oil depletion. My gut feeling is that coal use will increase regardless even as petroleum based fuels decline. I recall reading on this website some 700+ coal burning plants are slated for China and India, most presumably using older technology.

On the other hand we could make that coal last for 1,000 years and cut annual C02 emissions using non-fossil energy. If only.

Feel free to get hot under the collar HO, if this scale usage of coal is realized we will all be quite hot everywhere!  Speaking for the US mostly, we all need to understand and embrace the idea of cutting oil and nat gas use 3% a year - compound interest in reverse - and hope such a reduction keeps us one step ahead of depletion until alternatives (predominantly solar I hope) arrive.   The good news is we are such profligate wasters here in the US, that meeting that quota the first 3 years or so should actually be easy.
The cross-elasticity isn't so hot. To make coal into liquid hydrocarbon takes making a complete new variation of refineries. And these coal liquefacation plants will have all the maintenance problems of refineries, just to add insult to injury. What sucks is that you can't "just stick coal into a refinery" as if it was extreme heavy sour crude. Powder won't flow through a pipe. Even if you mix coal powder (and pulverisation uses energy) and heavy crude, there needs to be added hydrogen for those powdered carbon atoms to mate with.

So, you can't recycle old refineries except maybe for parts to build coal liquefiers. To liquefy coal, you must first make hydrogen. To do that, you can always use the old "town gas" method, an endothermic reaction. (C+H2O > H2+CO) Now, you have hydrogen but also carbon monoxide in equal parts by volume. Town gas needed LOTS of mercaptan so users can smell a leak before CO levels got too dangerous. Not good to replace natural gas. NG replaced town gas due in part to toxicity of town gas.

Now, if you take your still-hot town gas and mix hydrogen right with a catalyst, you get this: H2+H2+CO > CH3OH aka methanol. So, a coal gasifier making town gas with windmills to elecrolisise water gives the right mix. Catalyst and added heat sold separately. Mwethanol will work as a motor fuel but is on the toxic side. Not so great. Dragsters use methanol as the fuel. Re-nozzle a jet engine, and you can drive that jetliner after all. But the toxicity is a bonus for terrorists using planes as truck bombs. (not to mention the harassment of firefighters as methanol is water soluable so foam may not work)

With that, coal > methanol isn't so good a choice. But refining the methanol into hydrocarbon fuels will only add endothermic steps into the processing. Does anyone know the octane rating of methanol? I bet it'll be lousy as a diesel fuel becuse I bet it has a poor cetane rating. Its use in drag racing and Indy racing points to good if not excellent octane rating. As far as trucks and trains with diesels, it is not known if the glow plugs could be replaced with retrofit sparkplugs and a retrofit intake manifold to reduce the compression ratio to match the octane rating. The jet plane fuel issue is a near-no-brainer becuse jets are continuous-burn like a furnace so only re-nozzling is needed in theory. Heating oil as an issue gets problematic becuse of toxic vapours from the fuel tank. But the furnace can be re-nozzled like the jet. With trains, electrifying rail is the better choice to avoid the endothermic steps to make that fuel.

The name of the game energy-wise with using coal is to avoid when possible endothermic refining steps. Same is true of changing one hydrocarbon to another. That bit with adding hydrogen only makes the endothermia worse.

Hi HO, hope you make the best of those short TOD vacations.

I just want to stress again that classy "at current rates of consumption" discourse. Do the people who make them think? I'm almost sure they don't (at least for themselves).

From 2002 to 2004 world coal consumption grew 15% (yes, fifteen per cent in just two years). I'm anxious to see what BP's Stat Review has for 2005, it'll surely yield a higher rate of growth, impelled by India, China and the like.

These cornucopian optimists must live in another world, where population and consumption never grows, and the world is an open infinite system. This kind of reminds me of the Orgonomy Theory, where orgones continuously flow into organic things coming from nobody knows where.

I've got an orgone accumulator
And it makes me feel greater...

Somehow the thought is creeping upon me, that once we're going downslope Hubberts curve of oil we will not be able replace the missing oil & gas by coal, due to this post. Thereby avoiding further acceleration of GW.

Strange maybe, but GW is becoming more and more my greatest fear, instead of the 4 horsemen of the Apocalyps of PO which I endorsed after learning of PO a little over 1 year ago.

HO, for a good pint I recommend the Czech Republic(home of the one and only real, genuine Budweiser)

Yes, I also went down that road... If I dare some predictions we are going to see a coal rush in the next decades, followed with some lag by a nuclear rush as coal becomes increasingly strained. The coal and NG will become more valuable to produce liquid fuels and the nuclear will start replacing them for electricity.

All good, our way of life will be at least partially saved, but what will be the effect on the climate from all of this? Burning current coal reserves would release 3,500 billion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere, or some 20 times the amount we've already released throughout all the history of industrialization. So, what world shall we leave to our children and grandchildren? Is it realistic to think we are going to curb coal by voluntary sacrifices?

Is it realistic to think we are going to curb coal by voluntary sacrifices?

Probably not. That's why we need a global carbon tax. Sort of like Westtexas's idea but on a grander scale :)

I consider global warming to be closely related to peak oil with the latter being only slightly more immediate the danger. Both are imminent dangers. Why I call peak oil the slightly worse danger is that it'll become a full-scale crisis just before global warming becomes the big crisis. That said, if EUR Oil was 10 tera-barrels, global warming would hit us upside the head pretty soon, decades before such a delayed peak.

I've lived in Chicago nearly all my life, and I'm 43 years old. I remember winters from my childhood. Winter was great for me as a kid. I was tolerant to cold, more so than average. I could walk the streets without fear of bullies becuse of what I now call Police Commissioner Winter. (Think of the Russians and "General Winter") Old Man Winter was my friend and bodyguard. I guess the old Commish retired to Ft. McMurray. Now, Chicago's winters are wimpy compared to when I was a kid. I remember some really good cold days and snowstorms but a below-0F day is very rare. Snow don't stay around too long most of the time. By the way, extreme cold weather DOES slow down crime, hence Old Man Winter is a police commissioner. :) If you're cold-tolerant and dress for the weather, the ol' commish will help you out!

But increasingly, those days are gone. That's becuse of wimpier winters from global warming. Worse, summers get hotter, which increase crime as tempers boil over like cars stuck in traffic. I guess there is a heat-tolerant kid who gets bullied who likes hot days like I did cold days. So he may think of a "police commissioner summer".

But global warming generates better hurricanes and other storms due to larger temperature gradients. Storms are heat engines after all. We all saw how nature can use a hurricane as a WMD. Oklahomans take note: Tornadoes will likely get better too, and praying they don't will not work. Any god will get busier stirring up the better storms with our help!

HO, recharge your batteries and drink a pint of Old Peculiar for me if you get the chance!

You nailed the problem exactly.  What is the EROEI for coal when you add in all the petroleum based processes?  There is a lot of non coal energy used to dig up coal, process it, seperate it, transport it, etc.  If coal energy (via liquid conversion) was doing all that work the EROEI would be a lot lower than people are calculating.

DOE held its Annual Energy Outlook conference in DC on Monday.  You can see most of the presentations here:  PO mentioned on Caruso's first slide:
"EIA Reassessed Its Long-term Oil Price Projection
*The pace of investment by major oil producing countries is more consistent with a higher oil price path
*Investment impediments persist, even after several years of relatively higher oil prices
*Cost of doing business increasing
*Not due to "Peak Oil" considerations, although EIA is following this issue closely"
Regarding coal: Production grows steadily and surges after 2020 because DOE forsees little or no addition to nuclear capacity and includes only LNG capacity currently under construction.
No, none of these people understand the Hirsch report and the mitigation time required to do the required fuel switching. This is why I mentioned the report in my review of Tertzakian. He didn't seem to understand it either. The mantra is

new technologies are available and as current resources become disadvantaged the magical powers of the free market will make them available just in time.

This is false and it is a dangerous view.

I just posted re. this article on the Wed. open thread.

"As Utilities Seek More Coal, Railroads Struggle To Deliver"  Wall Street Journal March 15th, 2006

Basically, it has begun.  Fascinating side-issues, like, railcars crammed with consumer goods displacing coal and climate change disrupting deliveries...  Oh yes, and 100 more coal-burning power plants right here in the US of A!!