Fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) are not renewable resources. Continued industrial growth is causing the world to consume fossil fuels at unprecedented rates. As fossil fuel resources are depleted, the world will be faced with escalating prices for each of the commodities.
Coal fueled the engines of the industrial revolution in Europe and America in the 1700s and 1800s. Today, coal is primarily used as a fuel in power plants to generate electricity. There are four types of coal, which are based on the following carbon content:
1. Anthracite – Contains the highest carbon content (86%-97%) of all four grades of coal. Virtually mined out in the United States.
2. Bituminous – Contains lower carbon content (45%-86%) than Anthracite. Bituminous is used in coal fuel-fueled power plants and steel production.
3. Subbituminous – Contains lower carbon content (35%-45%) than Bituminous. Subbituminous is used in coal-fueled power plants.
4. Lignite – Contains lower carbon content (25%-35%) than Subbituminous. Lignite is used in coal-fueled power plants.
Coal with the highest carbon content produces the greatest quantity of energy. Anthracite, the highest quality coal has been virtually mined out around the world. The demand for coal for fuel in North America and Europe is declining due to economic factors. It takes more low grade coal to generate electricity than high grade coal and more coal means more transportation costs. The cost for electricity from coal fueled power plants in the United States is now double the cost for electricity from hydropower, wind or solar energy.
However, the demand for coal for fuel in Africa and Asia is increasing. Asia is the continent with the largest population and Africa is the continent with the fastest growing population. Approximately 50% of the people in Africa have no access to electricity. The governments in developing counties are building power plants to provide electricity and to help the industrialization of their countries. Local coal mines provide jobs and a relatively inexpensive form of fuel for many of these developing countries. The demand for coal in the developing counties is out pacing the declining demand for coal in Europe and North America.
When will the world run out of coal? Geologists estimate the world has approximately 110 years of coal reserves. However, the highest quality coal has virtually been mined out. The world’s future appetite for coal will be met with low grade coals, which produces greater volumes of greenhouse gases than high grade coal.
Oil is primarily used as a transportation fuel for automobiles, planes, ships and trains. In 1978, the world consumed approximately 50 million barrels of oil per day. Today, the world is consuming 100 million barrels of oil per day. Automobile industry analysts estimate there are over 1.4 billion internal combustion engine vehicles operating in the world today. Analysts predict that the foretasted global growth will result in over 2.8 billion vehicles operating by 2036.
British Petroleum (BP) estimates there are less than 50 years of oil reserves left in the world. The estimate assumes the global consumption of oil will remain relatively constant at 95 million barrels of oil per day. If the automobile industry analysts are current, then the world may run out of oil reserves sooner than anticipated in BP’s estimate.
Natural gas is primarily used as a fuel for heating, cooking, and electricity generation. In 1978, the world consumed approximately 135 billion cubic feet of gas per day. Today, the world is consuming 360 billion cubic feet of gas per day.
British Petroleum (BP) estimates there are approximately 55 years of natural gas reserves left in the world. The price of natural gas is dependent on supply and infrastructure, such as pipelines. The consumption of natural gas in the United States has increased by over 40% since 1978 due to low prices. The price for natural gas in Europe and Japan is more than double the price in the United States.
It took fifty years for Europe and the United States to move from wood to coal as the primary fuel source. Unless the world accelerates the move to renewable energy, the we will run out of fossil fuels in the not too distant future.