Read through to the last paragraph here, which really puts the growth of China’s energy requirements and coal demand into perspective… then go to the original article if you wish and read the lot. Richard Heinberg nails it once again.
It is true of course that China’s coal consumption is enormous and growing, and that coal is the basis of the Chinese economy, fueling over 80 percent of electricity generation. China’s coal output grew an astonishing 28.1 percent from first quarter 2009 to first quarter 2010, to over 750 million metric tons consumed in just the past three months. But this is a situation that is patently unsustainable—not just because of the carbon emissions it entails, but because China simply doesn’t have enough coal to continue growing its consumption much longer.
Start with the stats and do some simple math. China is now mining and burning over three billion tons of coal per year. If the nation’s coal consumption grows at, say, seven percent per year, that means consumption will double in ten years (its annual growth rate was actually over nine percent in one or two of the last several years, implying a doubling every eight years—but let’s be conservative and assume seven percent growth). In that case, by 2020 China would be using about six billion tons per annum.
It takes some reflection to come to terms with the enormity of these figures. In 2000, China’s coal consumption was only marginally higher than that of the U.S. Today, a decade later, it is three times U.S. consumption. (It is worth noting that the U.S. has double China’s coal reserves.)
Combine unprecedented consumption levels with furious growth rates and you quickly arrive at absurdities and impossibilities. As in, it won’t happen. The wheels will fall off the wagon first.
There Are Limits
It takes infrastructure to mine and use coal. Rails and rail wagons, plus trucks and roads, are needed to move coal from mines to power plants. Then there are the mines themselves, as well as the boilers and turbines that actually produce electricity. (In this essay we will not further consider the vital importance of coal to China’s steel industry, and the necessity of steel for manufacturing and economic growth in general.)
China is building all of these at a frenetic pace—but the relentless math of exponential growth is starting to hit home. Doubling small levels of production and consumption is relatively easy in practical terms, but, as quantities expand, the task balloons. China accomplished an amazing feat by adding almost two billion tons per year of coal production and consumption capacity and transport infrastructure during the past decade. Adding another three billion tons per year of capacity during the next decade would be—well, nearly twice as big a feat. Imagine building mining and transport infrastructure three times the size of the entire U.S. coal and rail industries in just ten years. That’s what it will take for China to maintain seven percent growth rates.