How long will the coal last?

Posted on May 14, 2010


(Swedish in a separat blog)

“The Globe” is a program broadcast by Sweden’s Radio P1 on Wednesdays at 1:20 PM and repeated on Thursdays at 7:30 PM and Friday morning at 1:03AM. This week’s broadcast concerned South Africa’s investment in coal-fired electricity generation, and this is the summary by Margareta Svensson in Johannesburg:
(You can also listen to the program in Swedish directly from The Globe’s website.)

One of the world’s largest coal-fired power stations is being built in South Africa. The World Bank is financing it despite international criticism.

The building of the new coal-fired power station Medupi in a sensitive natural environment is an acknowledgement that something is more important – namely that the nation gets sufficient energy. This was the reasoning of both South Africa and the World Bank before the decision to lend SA $3.75 to build one of the world’s largest coal-fired power stations despite international protests. That, in addition, the ANC government owns shares in one of the three companies involved were also ignored. In the surrounding area there are also plans for an installation for South Africa’s largest carbon dioxide producer – namely SASOL – that converts coal into liquid fuel.

Despite a shortage of electricity it has been taken for granted in South Africa as an infinite resource – and cheap electricity is a reason that many foreign energy-craving industries have established themselves here.

A coal-fired power station has a working life of approximately 40 years but the existing stations are inefficient and old and the heavy coal transports they require dirty the nation’s roads.

Today 90 percent of South Africa’s energy comes from coal. 75% of the nation currently has electricity, but the need for electricity is calculated to grow faster than the supply and not even the Medupi installation will be sufficient in a few years. The price of electricity has been raised 25% to pay for Medupi’s construction.

While South Africa continues to discuss who will get to construct the next nuclear power station, the electricity company Eskom has decided to raise the price of electricity by 25% per year for the next three years to pay part of the cost of construction of the Medupi installation.

This is a shock for many of the poor and unemployed, that presumably will continue to steal electricity, but it is also a shock for small businesses. In comparison, larger industries have not complained as loudly and it is speculated that they may have arranged a special agreement with the electricity producer.

The government’s current goal is that all of 10,000 gigawatthours will be generated by alternative energy sources by 2013 but there is no management of how this will be achieved. The question is what goals the new national planning commission will establish.

Then again there is now increasing talk about alternative and more cost-effective sources of energy – especially on solar panels. These should be profitable since the sun shines all year round in South Africa.

The World Bank’s approval of financing for the coal-fired power station Medupi also includes construction of 100 megawatts of solar panels and an equal amount of energy from windpower – it will be South Africa’s greatest investment in renewable energy to date.

The coal to the new powerstation will come from the Grootgeluk coal mine, which has to double it production (read more)

Three hours before the program was broadcast The Globe’s journalist Johan Bergendoeff came to the Ångström Laboratory to make a recording on coal in South Africa. In total the recording became a segment of 4 minutes and 14 seconds and it has been given its own page at The Globe’s website.

The headline became “How long will the coal last?” and the summary text is:

Physics professor Kjell Aleklett and his research group at Uppsala University have been very productive in recent years and have published 15 studies in rapid tact in various scientific journals [Publications by Uppsala Global Energy Systems Group, Uppsala University, Sweden]. Their research concerns how much mineable coal, oil and natural gas is left in the world and their numbers are not as alarming as the latest report from the UN’s climate panel the IPCC. On the other hand, their numbers mean that there is little time left to find alternative energy sources since they consider that the peak of oil production, so-called “Peak Oil”, will happen this year. [Comment from Kjell Aleklett: More exactly, we said that Peak Oil already occurred in 2008 or will happen in a few years if production in Iraq gets moving – see the article “Peak of the Oil Age”]

“South Africa has mined coal for more than 100 years and has, therefore, used most of its easily mined coal discoveries” says Mikael Höök who performs doctoral research on the world’s coal reserves at Uppsala University. “There is still coal left there but it will be more difficult and expensive to mine in future. But South Africa only has a little oil and natural gas so they are still investing in coal despite that it will be more expensive to extract in future. However, they will be forced to invest in renewable fuels as well, if not other things, because of the international pressure to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions.”

JB: “You have measured how much fossil fuel there is left in the world and arrived at numbers that are much lower than the IPCC’s. What conclusions should one draw from that?” “We have measured how big the tap is, i.e. how much one can produce from those reserves that exist in the world”, says Kjell Aleklett. “The IPCC has taken an overly optimistic view of the world’s fossil fuel reserves in its future scenarios. Emissions in future will not be as great as the IPCC has so far calculated. [Comment from Kjell: The production volumes per year that that IPCC used in some of its future scenarios are not realistic. They have assumed far to large a tap. They have also forgotten to take into account that large reserves are required to produce large volumes of fuel in 2100.]

JB: “But of course there are other estimates that state that the Earth’s coal will last for hundreds of years.” – “People have not looked thoroughly at the scientific and geological data. Instead they have made economic calculations”, asserts Mikael Höök. “We have looked at the extractability of the coal that is influenced by the investment economy and regulations. For example, in the USA large coal reserves lie in national parks. The coal exists geologically but cannot be mined without tearing up a mass of environmental legislation.”

Aleklett and Höök point out that their calculations of the world’s remaining reserves of fossil fuel mean that we must act very rapidly to convert to other sources of energy. And they do not reject any of the IPCC’s conclusions that the global warming that we now see is caused by human greenhouse gas emissions. They only assert that there is not enough fossil fuel left on Earth to attain the worst temperature increases that the IPCC predicts.


It is now more than two months since we published our article (read the peer-reviewed paper) that showed that the IPCC’s emissions scenarios of 2000 (the same scenarios that are used by the world’s climate researchers to calculate future temperature increases) cannot be realized. We have also reported on this internationally at the Energy Bulletin. What amazes me most is that not one single journalist around the world thinks that this is interesting. I don’t think they realize the magnitude of our research result. Maybe this segment on The Globe will open some people’s eyes. If not, one must place a large question mark over the world’s journalists. (email:, mobile phone: +46 70 425 0604).

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