Peak coal in China? Not so fast

China’s coal consumption officially fell by 2.9% last year for the first time in 14 years. Is this evidence of “peak coal” in China as some are already claiming or a temporary blip?

Let’s begin with an obvious problem. China’s coal demand officially declined 14 years ago. In other words, just prior to the biggest coal binge in human history China’s coal demand was officially flat. This sounds hard to believe. And it is.

Between 1996 and 2000, China’s coal consumption grew by only 0.3%. However, as Glen Peters has pointed out, BP has significantly revised China’s coal consumption figures between 1996 and 2000. And the same is true for China’s official statistics.

Officially China’s coal consumption declined massively in the late 1990s. However, this was only in the original statistical estimates. New data resulted in massive revisions to those early estimates. And this is clearly a long term problem. I reproduce a fascinating graph from Peters’ below.


Furthermore, the causes of the late 1990s “decline” in coal consumption must be borne in mind. Coal consumption almost certainly did not decline at all, but was simply under-reported (see Peters et al. 2007). There are potentially many reasons for this. Among them is the apparent failure of China to actually close small or illegal coal mines. Mines that were officially off the books were still producing coal, even though that coal was not appearing in official statistics.

This may be happening today. China is now officially closing large numbers of small coal mines, but it is unclear how many are actually being closed.

Similarly, illegal coal mining appears to occur on a large scale. Greenpeace recently found one “14 times the size of London” in Qinghai province. However, unsurprisingly, there appears to have been no attempt to properly quantify the extent of illegal coal mining.

A final problem with China’s coal statistics is that they are not internally consistent. A recent comparison of CO2 emissions using official national and provincial level statistics found a difference of 1.4 billion tonnes (Guan et al. 2012), which would translate into close to a 10% difference in coal production.

This is a consistent problem with Chinese statistics. Attempts to reconcile them with each other can quickly lead you to attach significant error bars to them. For an important example, see research on pork consumption statistics (e.g. Yu and Abler 2014).

So, clearly this decline in coal consumption should be treated skeptically simply because the underlying statistics are unreliable.

Not only that, but we must put this decline in the context of a significant fall in growth in the industrial drivers of coal consumption.

This is most noticeable in steel, which is the biggest source of coal consumption outside of the electricity sector. World Steel Association estimates for 2014 indicate that after 3 decades of year on year growth, China’s steel production did not increase last year.

This is shown in the graphs below I’ve produced using WSA data. Officially, China claims that crude steel production increased by 1.2%. This is growth, but still, it’s the slowest growth in over 30 years.


In addition, reports indicate that China’s demand for steel actually fell last year, and that it is being forced to increase exports to make up for the shortfall in national demand.

The same goes for two other key drivers of coal consumption. Electricity production, which makes up around 50% of China’s coal consumption, only grew by 4% last year. This is the lowest annual growth rate in the last 30 years, with the exceptions of 1997 and 1999. Typical growth rates were above 10% in the last decade.

Cement production growth is not entirely clear, but it tells a similar story. China is officially stating that it grew by 2.3%. However, USGS estimates indicate that it grew by 3.3%. Either way, this growth is much lower than the historical norms. A 2.3% increase would be lower than any year since 1990, and it is far below the typical 10-15% seen in the 2000s.

Cement statistics are similar to coal, they are prone to revision. Initial USGS estimates for 2013 coal production was 2.3 billion tonnes, which represented a 4.1% increase over 2012 levels. However, their more recent estimates revise the 2013 figure to 2.42 billion tonnes, which further revised the growth figure to 9.5%. So, again, we will have to wait for more reliable numbers.

But these low steel, electricity and cement growth figures imply that China’s industrial growth, and probably GDP, is lower than officially stated. But, again, the reliability of GDP figures has long been questioned.

So, can we take seriously claims that coal consumption in China has peaked or is about to? Almost certainly not.

The peak coal thesis appears to rest on a single data point, and this data point rests largely on China’s industrial growth slowing massively. And who is going to bet that China’s economy continues to slump?

But more importantly we must look to what China is still doing: building huge numbers of coal power plants. As Armond Cohen has calculated, the majority of new electricity generating infrastructure built in China last year were coal power plants.

China opened 47.3 GW of new coal power plants last year.

This is not the behaviour of a country that is going to peak coal use any time soon. If the majority of new power plants China built last year will burn coal, then talk of an imminent peak in Chinese coal use is little more than wishful thinking.

Green Party energy policy does not add up

Reading through Green Party policies is a strange affair. Apparently these things are put together in a “democratic”, i.e. a rather shambolic manner, in which logical coherence, attachment to reality, and a desire to not make the party look zany and un-electable are secondary concerns.

The stories of course have already been written. Bans on alcohol on planes, bans on zoos, bans on coal, bans on fracking, bans on nuclear energy, bans on GM crops, bans on nanotechnology, bans on pleasure.

But what about their energy policy? The Green Party after all is partly out to save the planet. And it does in fact need saving, the science is quite clear on that.

It needs saving, but it won’t be saved by dogmatic, badly thought through policies that do not add up. And that’s what Green Party energy policy amounts to.

The full policies are listed here.

Let me go through them to highlight some glaring problems. Any Green Party members who want to defend their policies can leave a comment.

The scene is set with this one:

EN110 A green Government would cut energy costs across all sectors through demand reductions and improved efficiency. We will set clear and consistent targets and timetables for improving efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across all sectors of the economy. We will require energy use for space heating, and electrical use to be reduced by a third by 2020, by half by 2030 and by two-thirds by 2050, based on 2012 final energy demand levels. Specifically, we will aim to reduce total UK energy demand to 900 TWh/year by 2030, and to 600 TWh/year by 2050, i.e. reductions of approximately 40% and 60% respectively on 2012 final energy demand.

So, the Green Party will reduce electricity demand “by a third by 2020, a half by 2030, and by two thirds by 2050″. This sounds more than a little ambitious. But let’s just accept this target.

Further on we have this,

EN210 A Green government will accelerate production of electricity from renewable and low carbon sources. We will rapidly develop new renewable energy capacity to meet reducing final energy demand, (see EN110), primarily through clean electricity generation (see EN211-215 below). We will mandate a target to reduce carbon intensity of power generation to a maximum of 25gCO2 e/kWh by 2030 and to implement an emissions performance standard reducing in regular intervals to that level by 2030, with flexibility to adjust the carbon intensity target towards an average of 10gCO2e by 2030. Wind will provide the main source of power by 2030, followed later by wave and tidal power. Solar thermal, photovoltaics and hydropower will be important because of their potential for local and small-scale generation.

The Green Party will reduce the carbon intensity of electricity to a maximum of 25gCO2 e/kWh by 2030. This will require that at most 5% of Britain’s electricity comes from natural gas. Obviously there won’t be any nuclear – they hate that more than coal.

So, 95% of the time supply will be met by renewables.

I am not aware of a single study showing how this is technically feasible. No storage technology is readibly available that will store the sufficient energy for the times when the wind does not blow, and the use of many storage technologies will push us over these decarbonisation targets – it takes a lot of energy to make a battery.

Furthermore, Chinese built solar panels have emissions of close to 100 g CO2 e/kWh. So, presumably these will be ruled out in the Green Party’s future.

Next we have this,

EN211 We will aim for a largely electricity-based energy system in the UK to match a total final demand of about 900TWh/ year by 2030, which reduces to 600-650TWh /year by 2050. To meet this demand, average capacity for renewables is planned to be 40 GW by 2020, rising to 70 GW by 2030, excluding power for demand balancing and load shifting. This capacity will be provided by the range of renewables set out below (all figures are average capacities).

By this point I hope you are already confused. What do they mean by “average capacity for renewables is planned to be 40 GW by 2020″? Surely they mean total capacity, not average.

They could perhaps mean that renewables will supply an average of 40 GW. But this cannot be true. Current demand averages just over 40 GW, and if the Green Party is cutting demand then renewables cannot be producing 40 GW on average, and certainly not 70 GW. So, why are they referring to averages?

They then list the capacities of various renewables:

EN212 We will accelerate the deployment of both onshore and offshore wind power generation at rates sufficient to ensure the change to a stable electricity-based energy system of 87GW by 2030, but stabilising thereafter. This will require a rapid build of onshore wind to 2030 to provide an average capacity of 12GWe by 2030, and off-shore wind generation capacity will be increased to 17 GWe providing a total average capacity of 29GWe (including existing and currently planned capacity).

EN213 We will support the rapid commercialisation of tidal stream and wave-powered generators to ensure they are able to contribute at least 5GW each by 2030, and a combined input of at least 20GW by 2050.

EN214 Rapid deployment of solar photovoltaics will be fully supported, as a key source of decentralised generation, making full use of domestic, commercial and industrial roofspace and limited deployment of ‘solar farms’. We will review legislation and planning guidance to facilitate the potential for leasing roof and site space for local energy generation by third parties. We will target 8GW from PVs by 2030 and 10 GW by 2050.

EN215 We will urgently review UK potential for hydropower and will support in particular medium and small-scale installations in order to provide 3GW (average) by 2030. We will develop the capacity of pumped storage for demand balancing, subject to stringent environmental safeguards.

A proof reader, or perhaps someone with vague understanding of terminology is needed here. Wind farms are talked about in terms of “average capacity”. Again what do they mean be average capacity? Tidal and wave is referred to in terms of “input”. Solar is then referred to purely in terms of capacity, and we are then back to average capacity for hydro.

Further, in 2030, there is to be an “electricity-based energy system of 87GW”. What does the Green Party mean by this? They cannot be referring to average electricity supply. 87 GW is about twice the current level, but the Green Party want a demand reduction.

They cannot be referring to average total energy consumption. 87 GW works out as 762 TWh, not the 900 TWh mentioned earlier.

I am at a total loss here.

But this is minor stuff compared to the rest of the numbers. They have already told us that electricity demand is to fall significantly between 2030 and 2050. And in 2030 essentially all electricity supply will come from renewables.

But here is what the Green Party tells us what else will happen between 2030 and 2050. Wind electricity will stay the same, or “stabilize” as they put it. Tidal and wave will increase from 5 GW to 20 GW, while solar will increase from 8 to 10 GW.

In other words, Green Party energy policy will simultaneously increase supply of electricity and decrease demand for electricity. 

The Green Party’s hearts may be in the right place, but they really need to put more thought into the whereabouts of their brains.


Biomass still dominates EU renewable energy

“Follow the trendlines, not the headlines”, Bill Clinton once said. He may not – no certainly – does not believe this too much. But as a piece of guidance it is rather wise.

Here is what the headlines will tell you about renewable energy in Europe. There is a renewable energy revolution in Europe and this is being led by wind and solar.

First, there is nothing meriting the term “revolution” going on in EU energy. A simple comparison makes this clear. In 1990, Britain got 0% of its electricity from natural gas. By 2000, this had reached 40%. Wind and solar are not growing this fast anywhere in Europe. Growth of natural gas power plants in Britain in the 1990s was about 4 times greater than the last decade of growth of Germany wind and solar put together. Keep that in mind the next time you read dubious headlines about the growth of German renewables.

Second, the idea that wind and solar are leading the growth of renewables in Europe has little to do with reality. In fact, it is biomass, the burning of wood and converted crops, that is leading the growth of renewable energy in Europe. For whatever reason, this fact is more or less never mentioned. But, as I discussed here, after over a century of being in constant decline, biomass is now seeing a full flung renaissance in the EU.

EU historic biomass

European consumption of biomass roughly halved in the twentieth century, as shown in the graph above which uses data from Fernandez et al. (2007). Remarkably, it has already doubled this century. A century of declines has been reversed in a decade.

And the proportion of the EU’s renewable energy that comes from biomass has stayed remarkably similar, at around two thirds, throughout the last decade. This occurred despite total renewable energy doubling. So around two thirds of the growth in renewables has been in biomass.


Further, this is not mostly modern biofuels, things like corn ethanol or biogas. 71% of biomass is what the EU classifies as “solar biomass”, in other words wood. This means that 45% of EU renewables is wood and wood consumption has increased by 60% since 2002.

The EU is now importing so much wood from America that American scientists are calling on the US government to intervene and reconsider its status as carbon-neutral.

This may soon become the elephant in the room. The EU’s expansion of renewables has been driven far more by biomass than most recognise, and this expansion of biomass may not be reducing CO2 emissions as much as official inventories will tell you.

Note on data

Statistics are taken from Eurostat’s latest data release. The EU reports production of renewable energy in tonnes of oil equivalent. However, there are a number of different ways to calculate this, as I discussed here. For wind and solar, the EU uses the “physical energy content” method. Biomass is reported as the energy content of the fuel. We could spend a day arguing over the wisdom of this, but I am rather busy.


How much electricity is lost in transmission?

If you want to understand energy issues it is always worth having some key numbers memorised. This let’s you do quick, and often powerful, mental sums, and it’s also a vital tool in your bullshit detection kit*.

It’s worth knowing that in typical western economies per-capita CO2 emissions are 7-10 tonnes – of course, North Americans aren’t typical – and that the average person in Britain, Germany or Japan consumes the equivalent of 3 or 4 tonnes of oil each year, roughly half that in America and double that in China.

Here is another one that is probably worth having somewhere in you mind: The percentage of electricity generation lost in transmission.

Nothing is absolutely perfect, and that includes transmission lines and transformers. Run electrical energy through a wire and some of it will end up becoming heat. As a result, not all all of the electricity generated at a giant rural coal power plant makes its way to the cities that consume most of our electricity.

How much energy is lost in transmission? This can be calculated by looking at EIA data for generation and transmission (available here). EIA publishes generation and transmission figures (in billion kWhs, a rather unseemly unit) from 1980 to 2012 for most countries. I could show them all to you, but that would be labouring a point.

Instead, I will show data for 12 representative countries. Below is the percentage of electricity lost in transmission for the most relevant modernised economies, the B, R, I and C of BRICS, and Mexico.


The numbers are relatively clear. In typical modernised economies roughly 6-9% of electricity generated is lost in tranmission. None of the modernised economies lose more than 10%. Japan and South Korea have lower losses than anywhere else, and I guess this is down to high population density.

Things are different in developing economies. In 2000, India lost around 30% of its electricity in transmission. However, this has improved significantly, and it is now down to around 18%. Meanwhile, Russia and Mexico can still improve a lot on their losses, but not as much as India has.

China however appears to have always had losses at the levels of typical modernised economies, and its transmission losses are essentially identical to America’s today . Whether this is real or simply a result of deliberate misreporting of statistics is not clear. The unreliability of China’s official statistics has long been a topic of academic research – just look at pork statistics – but I cannot find any research on whether their transmission loss figures are reliable. Perhaps there is a paper waiting to be written.

So, there you go. At most 10% of electricity is lost in transmission, unless you don’t have the luck of living in a modernised economy.

*Ernest Hemingway, I believe invented the term, despite it often being attached to Carl Sagan. Though Hemingway cut the bull, he simply it a “shit detector”.

Note on calculation

Data was analysed in R and plotted using ggplot2. The original data is taken from the Energy Information Agency, which in turn takes most of their data from national statistical agencies. The plot shown simply compares generation and transmission losses in each year. It could be more accurate by accounting for electricity imports, but the story would only change marginally (and I am putting the final layer of paint on to my thesis, and should not even be writing this blog post.)

China’s cement consumption grew more this century than the rest of planet’s has since the invention of cement

The early estimates are now in for China’s cement production in 2014. China now consumes 2.5 billion tonnes of cement each year, according to USGS figures, with growth of around 3.3%.

Remarkably, this is 60% of the global total. Cement, of course, equals infrastructure. And China is building a lot of that. Building a highway system the size of America’s in roughly a decade and moving a couple of hundred people from villages into newly built urban areas in the same time.

This volume of cement consumption is historically unprecedented, but the percentage is perhaps not. Historical USGS statistics indicate that America consumed roughly half of the world’s cement in the mid 1920s. But things have changed. America went from consuming 46% of the world’s cement in 1926, the first year USGS has international figure to a mere 2% today.

However, what is even more remarkable is how rapidly China’s production of cement has grown this century. Last year the rest of the world produced 1.68 billion tonnes of the stuff. In 2000, China produced 597 million tonnes. China’s cement production has therefore increased by 1.9 billion tonnes this century.

Or to put it more strikingly, China’s cement production has increased more this century than the rest of the world’s has since the invention of cement.

This astonishing growth can be seen in this graph from an old piece I wrote on cement production in China.


I only write this because of my deep upset at Tom Hardy being snubbed in the current round of award nominations. Evidently playing a physicist is more worthy than playing a normal guy talking about concrete in a car for 90 minutes.

Energy versus well being: How much energy do we need to consume?

There are no shortage of people confidently proclaiming how much energy the world will consume in future. We must at least triple or quadruple global energy consumption. Or perhaps we can lower it, as appears to be the wish of many green NGOs.

Who is correct?

Energy forecasts are of course no better than the predictions of the crazed prophets who once resided in the Middle East. So, as someone who recognises the absolute failure of previous forecasts and as someone who doesn’t believe they have powers of prophecy not granted to earlier “experts”, I will not bother answering my first question. Instead, I will show some simple numbers that should be the background to any discussion about the future of energy consumption.

Global primary energy consumption, or least the commercial varieties, came in at 12.7 billion tonnes of oil equivalent (toe). There are still a lot of people – too many – who rely on burning wood and dung for their energy, and this means the actual figure is a bit higher. But for now I will just round my number up to 13 billion toe.

In total, there are around 7.2 billion people on earth. So, split between them, 13 billion toe works out as 1.8 toe per-person. This is where things are now. How about the future?

Typical developed economies consume between 3 and 8 toe per-person. However, in reality the developed world is split between North America and the rest. Western Europeans and Japanese consume around 4 toe per-capita; North Americans consume close to 8 toe per-capita.

Americans however have little to show for this. By all measures, life-expectancy, infant mortality, you name it, Americans are no better off than their developed world counterparts who consume half as much energy. (Yes, Americans do have higher GDP, but what do they have to show for that either?) So, there does not seem to be any evidence based on these data points that consuming much more than 4 toe per-capita will make you better off.

Let’s see how this works out on a bigger scale. Below is a graph comparing life expectancy with per-capita energy consumption. (All data here is taken from the excellent Gapminder.)

lifeAs you can see very low energy consumption is more or less uniformly associated with lower life expectancy. However, increasing energy consumption above 3 or so toe per-capita does not appear to result in increasing in life span.

What about human development index?

hdiA similar story. HDI does not appear to increase much, if at all, once you hit European levels of per-capita energy consumption. But again, lower energy consumption has an impact.

And one final comparison. Energy consumption versus infant mortality (number of infants dying by the age of 5 for each 1000 born).

mortAs before, there is little benefit from energy consumption above the 3 to 4 toe per-capita mark. In fact, you could argue that above 2 toe per-capita things do not improve that much.

So various futures are possible. Everyone could consume energy like Western Europeans. On a planet of 9 billion people, that would mean global energy consumption almost tripling. And, of course, more rational energy consumption could reduce this figure significantly. However, it clearly appears unlikely that everyone can live like Western Europeans without global energy consumption rising. That would take a tripling of efficiency, which is probably unthinkable.

But, on the other hand, everyone could consume like North Americans. Global energy consumption would increase by a factor of six, and the planet would likely fry and we would have little to show for the frying. I am not going to predict which is more likely, but it is clear which is more desirable.

Fracking versus wind farms: NIMBYism is not your friend

The rapid expansion of fracking, from something to nothing in short order is possible. There is no certainty, as the Guardian tells us, that fracking will not be viable in Britain for at least a decade. To see this we must consider the case of Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania is an American state with a population that is one fifth of Britain’s, and a total surface area of just under half of Britain’s. In 2008, it essentially produced no shale gas. Well, it produced 9,757 million cubic feet each year according to official statistics; cubic feet being a unit designed to inhibit understanding.

Yet, by 2013 it was producing 3,048,182 million cubic feet each year, a factor of 300 increase in 5 years. In other words, Pennsylvania’s annual shale gas output went from zero to above Britain’s current annual consumption (2,581, 790 million cubic feet according to BP) in half a decade. A true dash for gas.


In total, Pennsylvania now has around seven thousand active shale gas wells. So, that’s a number to keep in mind when politicians or activists are chucking claims around about the number of fracking wells need to supply Britain’s needs.

Less than ten thousand. This is a number that many will use to heighten NIMBY opposition to fracking. But, let’s imagine it works, and people say no to living near fracking wells. Who wants the disruption? Who wants their view ruined?

In the place of fracking wells, these people will then be told to accept the erection of skyscaper sized steel towers. Towers that have moving parts, and make noises that supposedly bother your sleep. And they will not have to accept ten thousand of them, but many more.

Let’s do some basic calculations.

Britain’s annual demand for natural gas is now 851 TWh. In power terms this is 97 GW, on average. Let’s imagine that we wanted to replace all of that with wind energy. How many wind turbines would it take? I will assume, generously, that all of this natural gas is used to generate electricity, and that this electricity generation is roughly 50% efficient.

We therefore need enough wind turbines to average 50 GW of output. A typical wind turbine in a big onshore wind farm is something like 2 to 2.5 MW in capacity. However, their output is lower than the rated capacity. The wind does not always blow, and so the average onshore wind farm in Britain has capacity factor of around 27%. I’ll say that it is 33%, and bump up the capacity of a typical turbine to 3 MW. A typical turbine therefore has average output of 1 MW. (A GW being a gigawatt or a billion watts. A MW being a megawatt or a million watts. A TWh is a trillion watt hours. And, if this is the first time you’ve seen someone tell you the definition of these numbers, then you should ask questions about the calibre of journalism about energy.)

Getting the number of turbines to supply 50 GW is then a simple question of dividing two numbers. In total, you would need around 50,000. And remember my generosity in the calculation.

Say no to one fracking well, and say yes to ten wind turbines.

Is this a decision that the British, with their mythical views of the countryside, are likely to take? Hardly.

Now, I am not in any way arguing for fracking, simply laying out some unavoidable facts. A massive expansion of renewable energy and of NIMBYism are mutually exclusive. Drumming up local opposition, in the delusional hope that similar sentiments will not be applied wind farms – they will – is not a rational strategy. As Saul Bellow observed, “ there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining”.

The age of renewable energy sprawl is upon us, and the age when opponents of fossil fuels should rely on NIMBYism to help their cause is over.