Coal? It’s Over
By Mike SeccombeOctober 29, 2012
There are good reasons — both ecological and economic — to think the slowdown in demand for coal is not a slump, but the start of a post-coal world. Nowhere is this more important than in Australia, the world's second largest coal exporter, where the recession-defying economy has been riding a mining boom.
Back in August, when Australia’s Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson said the country’s resources boom was over, the government went straight into damage-control mode.
He misspoke, they told us. What he meant was that the investment part of the cycle was slowing. Nothing to worry about, folks, we’ll be digging it up in bigger quantities than ever, and the rest of the world will keep on paying us the big bucks for the foreseeable future.
Ten weeks later, the government releases its mid-financial year update on the budget, and we find there is a $4 billion shortfall in revenue for this year, and a $22 billion projected shortfall over the four-year budget forecast.
Here’s the treasurer, Wayne Swan, explaining and spinning it, in part of his statement announcing the bad news:
“Global growth has slowed in recent months, with the recession in the Euro area and the subdued recovery in the United States weighing on growth in our region,” he said.
“While Australia’s economic fundamentals remain strong, the recent decline in global commodity prices has contributed to a larger than expected decline in Australia’s terms of trade, which are forecast to decline by 8 per cent in 2012-13, compared to a forecast decline of 5¾ per cent at budget.”
All true, as far as it goes. Most of what’s wrong with the domestic economy is due, directly or indirectly, to what’s wrong in the world economy. What Swan did not say, though, is that the government hadn’t anticipated this hit to the budget bottom line because it was way too optimistic about the world’s demand for the minerals we dig up.
The latest index of commodities from the Reserve Bank shows another 1.3 per cent decline, just in the month of September. In dollar terms, the index has dropped 18.5 per cent in the past year, due to falls in prices for iron ore, oil and coal.
Yet even now the assumption is that the next phase of the boom will save us, that demand for our mineral resources will see us selling lots more of them, even if it is for a little less.
But what if that’s wrong? What if Martin Ferguson was more right than he knew – or knew more than he meant to say? What if a very large part of the resources sector does not boom again — ever?
We’re talking about coal, that dirtiest of all fossil fuels, which has powered so much of the world’s industrial development over hundreds of years, and which has more recently powered much of Australia’s economic growth.
“I think it’s a sunset industry,” says Giles Parkinson, whose 30-year background in reporting business covers the Australian Financial Review and The Australian newspapers, The Bulletin magazine, and Climate Spectator, and who now runs the Renew Economy website, which tracks developments in the energy sphere.
“I just don’t think they [the industry] know it yet,” he says.
“They’re incredibly optimistic about growth [and] refuse to believe that anything could possibly happen that would impede that growth.
“They seem to believe that climate change is not going to impede them and that policies brought in to address that are not going to impede them.
“They seem convinced that they remain the cheapest form of energy. And they seem to be convinced that there is an unending source of water to allow their product to be used.
“And I think they’re probably wrong about all those things.”
Still the official view is of a big future for Australian coal exports. Just a few months ago, the government’s Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE) released a bullish report predicting the volume of Australia’s coal exports would increase hugely between 2012 and 2025. Thermal coal — used for power generation— would double; and metallurgical or coking coal — used in steel production — would go up by 36 per cent.
"The large projected volume increase will help offset expected declines in bulk commodity prices and allow Australia to maintain the value of its mineral and energy exports," BREE said.
But there is good reason to believe the bureau is way too optimistic in its assessment of demand, particularly for thermal coal.
And it wouldn’t be the only government forecaster to underestimate the recent, sudden decline of coal.
The United States Energy Information Administration (EIA) notably did not foresee an astonishing drop in coal consumption in that country.
Until only four years ago, coal production had been growing steadily in absolute terms, although for years it had been in slow decline as a share of US total energy production. Then, starting in 2008, the coal industry went into rapidly accelerating decline, and the EIA has been revising its forecasts downwards ever since.
According to the agency’s figures, America used 18 per cent less coal for electricity generation in the first half of 2012 than in the same period just a year earlier, and 27 per cent less than in 2008, which was the year of peak coal consumption in America.
There is no single reason for this, but one standout reason: fracking. The new technique for extracting gas from shale by hydraulic fracturing of the rocks has liberated a vast, previously untapped energy supply and seen gas prices fall dramatically. In the year to April, natural gas prices fell 56 per cent in the US. Coal prices followed gas down.
By March this year, coal’s share of the US electricity-generation market had plunged to 34 per cent, from 47 per cent just three years previously.
And the decline continues to gather speed. All over the US, coal-burning electricity plants are closing down or converting to gas. This is a permanent change.
Now, fracking comes with its own environmental concerns, including water pollution and the accidental leakage of methane (which is a vastly more potent greenhouse gas than CO2). Even so, the fracking boom has drastically cut the contribution of the United States to global warming.
America’s emissions of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, have fallen along with coal use. They are down by about 15 per cent from their peak in 2008 — the same year, you will note, that coal-use peaked in America. The total CO2 emissions of the United States are on track to be about the same this year as they were in 1992.
The reason for this is simple: in producing a given output of energy, gas produces about half the CO2 that coal does.
The US coal industry is in freefall because it is being replaced by cheaper forms of power, which also happen to be of some environmental benefit. Although that’s primarily gas at the moment, other forms of power generation, particularly wind power, are also growing fast. Almost a third of new generating capacity in the US last year came from wind power.
Then there’s solar-generated power — probably the brightest prospect of all — but we’ll come back to that.
Not everyone in America is happy about the waning of coal — the Republican Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, for one. You might have noticed him during the second Presidential debate, channelling the pain of US coal workers as he berated Barack Obama over US energy policy.
“I was in coal country,” Romney said. “People grabbed my arms and said, ‘Please save my job’.”
Romney’s position is explicable only as populist pandering.
Even if he does not believe in human-induced climate change (denial of global warming is these days an article of Republican faith, and Romney has flip-flopped in his position on this issue over the years), he surely believes in the marketplace, and that this sidelining of coal is nothing less than the “creative destruction” of capitalism.
A lot of other people in America, though, are frankly delighted by it.
People such as Ivy Main, of the Sierra Club conservation group, who recently compared coal-fired electricity generation to the American box turtle, a species that “might be extinct, only it didn’t know it yet”.
“This odd state of affairs,” Main wrote recently in the club publication Compass, “is because, for various reasons, the turtles seem not to be reproducing. No matter how many of them there are today, if there aren’t any babies, they are effectively extinct.
“That’s the case with coal-fired power plants in America. There are hundreds of them in existence … but nobody is building any new ones.”
(A box turtle, coincidentally, has an average life span of about 50 years, roughly the same as a coal-fired power station.)
And it’s not just greenies questioning coal’s future. Back in April, America’s Businessweek posed the question “Is coal doomed?”
Its conclusion was that while not yet dead, coal might be mortally wounded, at least as far as domestic demand is concerned.
On the upside, it noted: “US coal exports rose 57 percent from 2009 through the end of 2011.”
In other words, America, the world’s second-largest coal-producing nation after China, is moving to export its glut to the world.
Now, this portends serious consequences for Australia. The law of supply and demand dictates that when supply increases, price falls — unless demand also increases. Some optimists point to India and China as potential growth markets. But the indications are that demand is not increasing fast enough right now, because the world economy is so flat.
Even those who believe in the long-term future of coal concede the Australian export industry is facing great uncertainty in the near term.
One of them is Stephen Reid, a partner in corporate finance at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, who believes the slowdown of China (which is the world’s biggest user of coal for both power generation and steel making), the prospect of increased US exports, and other factors are likely to result in price volatility.
“The point about coal prices is that seaborne trade in coal is a relatively small fraction of global coal use, and Australian exports are a small fraction of Chinese coal consumption,” he says.
“Obviously if you have a cheap domestic source, then you will use that first. Seaborne coal becomes your marginal supply. If China is not growing as quickly and is able to sustain itself with its own coal, then Australian coal prices will fall,” he says.
Reid is nonetheless an optimist about coal’s future, who believes that “pretty much every economically founded forecast of energy use over the next 40 years would have coal retaining a large market share.
“The reason we’ve used coal is that it’s a very dense, efficient form of power. There is a need for that base-load power that renewables can’t provide.”
But he concedes that the coal industry, having been “placid and predictable for a long time — you wanted more power, you went and built another coal-fired power station” — is not so anymore.
“There is just an enormous amount going on in the energy space… at every level,” he says.
Carbon pricing, renewables, gas, and demand and supply uncertainties…
China, the world’s biggest energy consumer, is again the best case in point. Yes, as the coal boosters point out, China is still reliant on the dirty stuff for 70 per cent of its power. And yes, it also uses lots of coking coal in its vast steel industry.
Even Tim Flannery, head of the Australian Climate Commission and climate-change activist, acknowledges that.
“I think there will be an export market for thermal coal into China for quite some time, because obviously there is a lot of newly built [coal generation] infrastructure that is very efficient. And Australian coal is superior to Chinese coal,” he says.
But he doesn’t buy the extremely bullish forecasts for Australian coal exports into the future.
“We’ve seen a dramatic drop in price for both [thermal and coking coal] products and the deferment of a number of large projects, particularly in the Galilee basin in Queensland, which was going to be the next big coal area,” says Flannery.
“The big question is, are those projects going to be taken up again?”
“Take coking coal, which is used as a reductant in the steel-making industry. We’ve already seen a turndown in steel production in China in particular, which makes about half the world’s steel,” he says.
“And China is only about three or four years away from having lots more scrap steel to recycle. And there are a number of technologies becoming available which allow you to substitute [other materials for] coal in arc furnaces, which reduces coking coal inputs by 30 to 40 per cent.”
Those substitutes — hydrogen-rich fuels, often recycled materials themselves, such as old tyres and plastics — massively reduce greenhouse gas emissions, cut electricity use and make for better quality steel, he says.
He predicts that this combination of factors would see the coking-coal sector shrink in the next 10 to 20 years.
“And maybe sooner. In South Korea, they are experimenting with deriving hydrogen from nuclear power.
“Using pure hydrogen is so superior to using coking coal, it could totally change the equation for coking coal. That’s probably 10 years off,” says Flannery.
Events are moving even faster against thermal coal, used in electricity generation.
A 2011 estimate by the USEIA suggested China has the world’s largest recoverable resources of shale gas — roughly 50 per cent more than the US, and equal to a full 20 per cent of the world’s total reserves.
China aims to double the share of gas in its energy mix in the next couple of years, albeit coming from a low usage base of about four per cent today.
China is also already the world’s biggest generator of wind power, with enough installed capacity to power all of Australia. It plans to more than treble this capability by 2020.
Are you getting the picture here? By the time the current cyclical downturn in energy demand in China ends, it’s quite likely structural changes in the energy mix will continue to shrink the demand for coal.
And the outlook for sales to India looks even grimmer, says Giles Parkinson.
“In China they believe that wind and solar energy will be cheaper than coal by the end of the decade. Wind is probably [cheaper] already.
“In India they’re talking about 2017. You’ve got to remember [unlike China] these guys have to import a lot of the coal, and it’s just very expensive for them,” he says.
“I was in India a couple of months ago, and they’re building these mega, mega coal-fired power stations… and they’re finding they just can’t make money out of them. And some of the big venture companies there are saying that if they’d known the cost of coal, they wouldn’t have gone ahead.”
Tim Flannery backs that assessment.
“I’m pretty close to what happens in India; I serve on the [giant Indian industrial conglomerate] Tata power sustainability advisory board. And my gut feeling is the big expansion of coal in India is not going to happen, and they are going to leapfrog into renewables, because of declining cost and all the land-use issues in India.
“Distributed generation [ie: many small, renewable sources of power, rather than big generators] is just so much better a fit for India,” says Flannery.
The fact is, governments everywhere are starting to see coal as an expensive option when they are considering new infrastructure.
Says Parkinson: “Wind is already cheaper than coal in the US, and it’s cheaper than coal and gas in Europe because the gas has to be imported from Russia. And they don’t seem to be too keen on fracking, so there’s not much of that.
“And solar will come down the cost curve and match the cost of wind by the end of this decade, if not before.
“The price of coal is getting high, even in Australia, where we’ve got our own. The Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics said unequivocally that by 2020-30 solar will be cheapest. But if you look at their chart, it will be cheaper than coal and gas by 2020.
“Once you take externalities into account [ie: the indirect costs of pollution from coal], and the fact that there may be some serious action on climate change, depending on how quickly and badly the world might be affected, then you’ve got more pressure to force coal out of the equation.”
The case for coal rests largely on two arguments now. The first is that is can be made “clean”, by carbon capture and storage (CCS), and the other is that renewables can never provide the base-load power that ensures reliability of supply.
As to the first argument, some respectable analysts still think clean coal technology is feasible.
But it still has a long way to go, technically, and will add considerable cost to coal plants. Meanwhile, alternative energy sources are progressing in leaps and bounds.
Paul Gilding, former international CEO of Greenpeace, is happy for the market to make the judgment on “clean coal” technology.
“How many commercial people are putting money into it, who aren’t pumping oil out of the ground?” he asks, rhetorically.
“The answer is, virtually nobody. It’s not that it isn’t technically possible, but it is not commercially viable when solar is dropping so fast in price.
“It’s not that we could not retrofit a coal plant with CCS. We certainly could. But you lose about 25 per cent of the energy- generation capacity. It costs a lot of money, and then you have to pump the CO2 somewhere to store it,” he says.
“It should be said that many intelligent people, including friends of mine who are very serious advocates of climate change, think I’m wrong.
“But I’m focused on markets.
“And solar is where the big movement is, where the prices are dropping fast. There’s something akin to Moore’s Law — which says that computing power doubles, and halves in cost, roughly every 18 months — applying to solar now.
“It is a very comparable high-tech manufacture. It keeps on getting cheaper, and will keep on getting cheaper.”
The cost of solar photovoltaic generation — solar panels to most of us — has fallen 50 per cent in the past year, 75 per cent in the past two years.
Our efforts to harness the wind, we should add, are also making rapid technological advances. New gearless turbines allow much greater power output from comparably sized turbines.
The other type of solar — solar thermal, which concentrates the sun’s heat to boil water and drive turbines — is not progressing so rapidly, but it’s still progressing, says Gilding.
Whereas solar PV stops generating when the sun goes down, solar thermal can keep on generating in the dark.
“That’s because it generates heat, rather then electricity, and stores it,” he says.
“There is now a solar thermal plant in Spain, for example, that has generated 24 hours a day, but is designed to generate 18 to 19 hours a day.
Which brings us to the base-load argument put by the proponents of fossil-fuel generation. That is, that you need a reliable source of power for when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.
But effective storage of power generated in times of nature’s glut would render this argument moot. And the storage issue is being worked on in various forms: better batteries, heat storage in liquid salt (a bit like a solar hot water system on a grander scale and at a higher temperature), solar-hydro (pumping water uphill when the sun shines and then harnessing its downward flow as needed), and even using simple inertia, like giant flywheels.
Says Tim Flannery: “I think base-load is old thinking now.”
New thinking is the distributed-grid model, in which there will be lots of “prosumers”, who both produce and consume.
This will pose a massive challenge to distribution networks.
“The poles-and-wires people just have no idea what’s coming with all that stuff,” Flannery says.
The bottom line is that the base-load model will be turned on its head. According to Flannery, instead of renewables providing top-up power, the big power generators will become the backup, and they will need to be able to quickly ramp up production or turn it down.
This means gas, not coal.
On top of all that, Flannery sees a future of “smart electronics, [devices] which can ride out minor variations in power availability.”
So, yes, a post-coal world is going to require quite a bit of re-engineering.
But the thing which most encourages those such as Flannery, Gilding and Parkinson, is the fact that so much is already happening. Australia, for example, is running 17 years ahead of government solar projections for the installation of rooftop solar panels. Some 750,000 homes now have them.
And the changes are not primarily being driven by ecological altruism or even government policy, but by economic forces.
“Last year,” says Gilding, “global investment in renewable energy in the power-generation sector hit $250 billion — more than was invested in new generation capacity in coal, oil and gas.
“The beautiful thing about it is that it’s the market.
“If you’re forecasting an investment, thinking of lending money to a coal mine that’s going to have a 10 or 20 year life, you are now taking an enormous risk,” he says.
“You don’t need much of a shift for the bankers to decide they don’t like the risks. Then the money has to go somewhere, and it will go to alternatives, to renewables.
“And we don’t need any more technology to take out the coal industry. All the technologies are currently proven.”
Which is encouraging, because if we are serious about meeting the declared target of containing the rise in global temperature to two degrees Celsius, says Gilding, “it means we can’t burn something like 80 per cent of the proven reserves of oil, coal and gas”.
And what about Australia’s resources boom?
“I think it’s over. I really think it’s over this time — not mining and resources as a whole — but coal. Oil and gas won’t be far behind, but coal will go first.”
Not that the industry will die overnight. That will take 10 or 20 years. But if you’re a Nathan Tinkler or Clive Palmer — or a federal government — betting on a long-term, sustained recovery in the coal market to secure your future, you’re taking increasingly long odds.