Shuck and Jive

Monday, February 16, 2009

Five Hundred Years of Coal?

It has been two months since I posted on Albert Bartlett's lecture (now on video) Arithmetic, Population, and Energy.

You can also read the transcript courtesy of
Minnesotans for Sustainability.
You will also want to watch Chris Martenson's Crash Course. I will eventually post on it as well.

This Youtube version of Bartlett's lecture is simply his lecture chopped into eight parts of equal length. I have posted and commented on the first three:

Bartlett 1: The Greatest Shortcoming of the Human Race
Bartlett 2: Zero Population Growth Will Happen
Bartlett 3: Time in a Bottle

And now, part 4.

In section four, he talks about coal. You may have heard this statement in regards to coal:

"At current levels of output and recovery these American coal reserves can be expected to last more than 500 years."
Bartlett says this is a dangerous statement. It is dangerous because it is true. But the danger is that people take the sentence apart. The important part of this statement is its beginning: "At current levels..."

That means if and only if we remain at
zero growth in terms of coal production.

Another caveat. Of the coal reserves, only half are recoverable based on the U.S. Department of Energy's own numbers. That knocks the number down to 250 years already. But that is not all.

Between 1971 and 1991 coal production increased at a rate of 2.86% per year. How long would coal last at this growth rate?

Answer: Between 72-94 years.

The only way to get the 500 year figure would be to do two highly improbable things. The first is to find a way to recover 100% of the coal in the ground. The second is to have 500 years of zero growth of coal production.

He concludes that in conversation with coal mining companies in Kentucky and W. Virginia, they report they have maybe 30 years left (at the time of this video) before coal mining is no longer economical. Then what do we do to switch on the lights?

Of course, the 500 year figure is trotted out to make us feel more secure about oil reserves as if coal will substitute for oil. But this 500 year figure is about current energy needs. According to Dr. Bartlett, coal provides about 1/5 of the energy we use in this country. If we moved to 100% energy from coal we would have to divide time remaining by a factor of five.

The next time someone tells you we have "500 years of coal left," invite them to check this video, and check the facts.

Part five next time.

Here is part four:

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