Dornadula Chandrasekharam
Former Chair Professor I I T Bombay, India

Can the world survive without coal?

Coal deposits are about 500 to 600 million years old, geologically speaking, they belong to a period known as “The Gondwana Era”. During this period the landmasses were together as one continent, known as the Pangaea. The land was covered by thick marshy lagoons with thick vegetation. The vegetation over some time was covered by thick sediments. The buried flora and fauna decayed and gave rise to coal deposits of varying thickness and variety. Subsequently, the Pangaea broke and the landmasses drifted to the current position leaving coal deposits of the same age in all the continents today. That is the coal genesis in short. For example, India has 190 billion metric tonnes of coal reserves, and Russia and Indonesia have much more reserves. Thus, coal is a huge banyan tree supporting a large number of industries listed below.

I remember, while I was in school my teacher asked us to write various uses of coal. As a kid, I know that only power can be generated from coal. I wrote power. Then my teacher started writing a list of uses of coal:    coal is used for steel production, coal is used in the cement industry, coal is used in alumina refineries, coal is used in the paper industry, coal is used for making activated carbon filters, coal is used for making carbon fibers, coal is used for manufacturing fertilizers, coal is used for…….coal is used for……so this list was never-ending. Now the message is bold and clear. This world cannot survive without coal!!.

The global steel market size is expected to reach US$ 1.01 trillion by 2025 registering a CAGR (Cumulative Annual Growth Rate) of 2.6 %. Steel is one of the most important resources for infrastructure development of every city, town, and village on earth. Growing demand for sustainable, low cost, and durable buildings in the residential and commercial sectors is driving this demand and this will keep growing in the future. Global steel export volumes have risen from 29% in 2014 to > 31 % in 2018. Top export countries are China, Japan, Russia, Ukraine, and Brazil and the top importers are the US, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and the European Union. In the last few years, Russian exports showed a steep climb, from 27% to 31% and Ukraine from 17% to 18 %.

Next to steel is the cement industry with a current CARG of 7.8% and with current global market size of about US$ 683 billion.

There is no point in mentioning the global market size of other industries like fertilizers, the pharmacy that depends on coal.

China leads the way in cement consumption and production in the world. Interestingly China also is a major cement exporter country. Major cement importing countries are the USA (> 33%), Spain (11%), Italy (> 4 %). This trend is continuing for decades.  Since there is no substitute for cement, this will be a green industry forever and coal will tag along with these industries together with the steel industry!! The cement industry is the only industry where CO2 emissions come from two sources…….coal and limestone. Since the cement is essential for infrastructural development, no country will pledge to reduce cement production and utilization.

I have not included thermal power here!! the USA was not keen on signing the Kyoto Protocol, for these reasons. To reduce CO2 emissions IPCCC recommended a 5% cut in the CO2 emissions by all countries. Imagine ….to cut 5% reduction in emissions means the use of coal has to be cut by all industries. This will affect the financial growth of, especially, countries like India.  Don’t you think the USA was cleaver in moving away from this clause while all other countries kept discussing this issue and supporting the development of renewable energy sources for power generation especially like solar pv.

Germany produces a large chunk of lignite in the world and uses it for power generation. Nearly 22 % of electricity comes from coal here. Lignite emits more CO2 than normal coal. Although Germany has abandoned its 200-year-old hard coal mines in the Ruhr region, it continues to generate power from coal imported from Russia, Canada, and the United States!! Its steel industry consumes nearly 40 % of coal. Replacing lignite will be a tough job for Germany. One has to wait and see its future.

Russia is a big exporter of coal and the buyers are China, India, and Vietnam. China is a major importer of coal from Russia.  Currently, China is importing 30 million tones of coal/year and planning to increase it to 55 million tones in the coming decade.  In southeast Asia, Indonesia is the largest exporter of thermal coal. Russian largest coal mines, the Elginskoye coal mine, were sold to an IT company recently planning to escalate the exports to the above figure. Coal will stay in Russia for now.

Greta Thunberg’s protested to reduce CO2 emissions by Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey.  Somehow China was not on her radar …surprising.  It is more surprising how  China’s new 148 GW capacity thermal power plant has escaped Greta’s attention. All efforts by other countries to reduce emissions are nullified by China!! It is ironical…..China has pledged to reduce its CO2 emissions by 2030 as part of the Paris agreement but started building mega coal-based power plants! The emissions by China in 2030 will be more or less equal to that of Europe. Last year China’s added 25.5 GW of coal-based power while the rest of the world reduced coal-based power by 2.8 GW. The US is clever again……left the Paris agreement. Besides, China has merged the Shandong Energy group and the Yankuang group, two coal mining company and created a mega coal company. This mega-company will contribute 7% of the total country’s coal output.

These mega industries cannot thrive without coal and renewable cannot support these mega industries.

The so-called crusaders of CO2 emission reduction targeted Solar PV as the best source that can substitute coal or gas in the power sector. But what the pundits did not realize is, solar PV is not like apples that can be plucked and used. Manufacturing solar PV cell is a process, starting from mining quarts, refining, and preparing electronic-grade silicon from quartz. It is a highly energy-intensive process. Coal also forms a part of this process. During this process, the amount of CO2 emitted is more or less similar to small coal-based power plants.

You need 10 tonnes of quartz to manufacture solar cells that can generate 1 megawatt of electricity from the Sun. 1 MWe of electricity can support about 20,000 people annually. Imagine how many tonnes of quartz have to be mined to support millions of people in the countries!! Besides energy spent on mining such large quantities of quartz, the manufacture of a PV cell involves two important stages: i) producing metallurgical grade silicon (MGS) and ii) producing electronic-grade silicon (EGS) from quartz. In the first stage, an amount of 1756 million kg of CO2 is released, and a similar amount of CO2 is released during the conversion of EGS to ingots. The total CO2 emissions during the lifecycle of a solar PV cell are about 3312 million kg. This is far higher than a geothermal energy source, which emits about 450 g/ kWh. According to the recently published report by International Energy Agency (IEA), under the sustainable development policy, proposed for adoption to mitigate CO2 emissions (The year 2040), nearly 54 billion cells are required to meet the generation target of 14,139 TWh. This amounts to releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere instead of conserving carbon dioxide and controlling global temperature rise. Manufacturing Li storage batteries and disposing of the waste is another entirely different issue altogether that adds fuel to the fire.

Replacing coal in the industries discussed above is not possible at least for now. No country will be able to reduce their economic developmental activity. Solar PV however discussed, supported, and encouraged cannot meet the demand and over some time this will be a declining source……..Sun may be eternal but natural resources are not! Quartz and Li are the two important ingredients in solar PV based energy. Quartz may be in plenty but Li is not. By giving subsidies countries think that solar PV can compete with oil/gas and coal. But the truth is the supporting ancillary industries. If solar pv is not supported these industries will collapse throwing millions jobless, especially in Europe. This story will unfold once the subsidy is removed for solar. Everyone knew about it. Whatever said and done the giant will rule the world….that is coal. It is not really clear what is the mandate of CoP.  Are these meeting/conferences have any effect on climate change !!!!!

About the Author
I am a Retired chair professor from Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and currently teach at IIT Hyderabad. I have 200 publications in the above fields and have supervised 25 Ph D students.