The King has not left the building

January 13, 2006

Are coal and oil the Earth's dirty, dwindling foes or humanity's loyal friends? Mark Jaccard argues for fossil fuels' zero-emission future

The reign of King Coal - and his royal cousins, crude oil and natural gas - is coming to an end, we are told, and the threat of climate change will finally terminate our on-off relationship with fossil fuels. It is a message that has become common currency nearly everywhere - but you write off fossil fuels at your peril, because there is life in the old king yet.

Today we burn coal. But we could gasify it instead, using decades-old technology deployed in South Africa, a legacy of apartheid-era restrictions on crude oil imports. Rather than making gasoline, however, we could add extra steam to produce a hydrogen-rich gas, and then scrub it with a solvent to extract its carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas we do not want to enter the atmosphere.

The resulting hydrogen could be burned to produce electricity, or piped to industrial plants, buildings and vehicles for use in fuel cells. Sulphur, mercury and other coal residuals could be captured and converted into useful products. The carbon dioxide could be injected into old oil and gas reservoirs, enhancing their output by 30 per cent, or into deep saline aquifers for permanent storage.

Because all these technologies are used commercially today we can confidently estimate their costs. Zero-emission conversion of coal into clean-burning electricity and hydrogen will increase the cost of delivered energy by 25 to 40 per cent over the next 50 years. That is an annual increase of less than 1 per cent. Thus, clean energy from fossil fuels might consume 8 per cent of the family budget of 2050 instead of today's 6 per cent.

And we are not about to run out of fossil fuels. While doomsayers decry the peaking production of "conventional" crude oil, experienced energy experts calmly assess the technical and economic potential of substitutes. They note that when the price of crude oil is above $35 (£20) per barrel - Jand today it is $60 - alternatives such as oil sands from Canada, natural gas from Qatar, coal from South Africa and biomass from Brazilian sugar cane can profitably produce oil products such as gasoline and diesel. Even with growing consumption, fossil fuels could last hundreds of years, given the global resources of coal and unconventional natural gas deep in the earth and frozen below the oceans. This evidence contradicts the claims of doomsayers that every spike in oil prices portends imminent resource exhaustion.

Some argue that fossil fuels should be abandoned because there are superior alternatives - energy efficiency, nuclear power and renewables such as wind, solar and hydropower. The aggressive pursuit of energy efficiency is desirable. But around the world, humans continue to crave ever greater access to energy. The global energy system was 16 times larger in 2000 than in 1900. Two billion people today are without electricity and modern fuels, and by 2100 their offspring will be 4 billion. These people use less than one gigajoule of energy a year while a typical American uses more than 300.

Even with dramatic energy efficiency gains in wealthier countries, a subsistence level of 30 gigajoules for the planet's poorer people will still require a three-fold expansion of the energy system during this century. Scale-up is the major challenge for nuclear power and renewable energy. Fossil fuels account for 84 per cent of the global energy system.

Nuclear power is at 2 per cent and renewables - mostly burning of wood and agricultural residues - at 14 per cent.

The wholesale replacement of fossil fuels in just one century will require a phenomenal expansion. The nuclear industry should grow, but its pace is limited by challenges in siting new facilities, storing radioactive waste and preventing nuclear weapons proliferation. Most renewable energy has low-energy density and variable production, which increases land-use conflicts and capital costs.

An essential effort in research and development will decrease the costs of renewables. But zero-emission fossil fuels will remain cost-competitive for at least this century. Acceptance of this economic reality means admitting that fossil fuels should not be regarded as a foe, but rather as humanity's best friend in its quest for a clean, enduring and affordable energy system. Long live the king!

Mark Jaccard is professor of resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada and author of Sustainable Fossil Fuels: The Unusual Suspect in the Quest for Clean and Enduring Energy , published by Cambridge University Press, £15.00.

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