I tend to be dubious about stories of "peak coal" in the near term, but this report from South Africa is interesting - SA is nearing peak coal, say scientists.
Research by international and local scientists has shown that coal, like other resources, is finite and can be expected to comply with peak resources theory.
The theory shows that production in commodities such as oil grows until a peak is reached, whereafter production declines.
In the case of South African coal, the studies show production has already reached its peak, or soon will.
“It is commonly believed that South Africa has abundant coal reserves which will last 200 years or more,'' says Jeremy Wakeford, chair of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (Aspo) in South Africa, in the organisation's latest newsletter.
“But recent research [from] three scientific journals suggests that usable reserves are much smaller than previously thought, and that annual production could reach a peak and begin to decline within a decade -- or might even have peaked already.''
Wakeford says that “given the country's overwhelming dependence on coal, this issue has huge ramifications for our future development path''.
Coal provides 70% of the country's energy supply, supports 90% of electricity generation, is used to make a quarter of the country's liquid fuels using the Sasol process and is a big earner of foreign exchange through exports to foreign users.
Geologist Chris Hartnady, in a paper to be published in the SA Journal of Science, has forecast peak production in 2020 at about 285-million tonnes a year.
This compares with total production last year of 242-million tons. This was mostly used by Eskom (123-million tonnes), Sasol (40-million tonnes) and export (66-million tonnes).
Eskom's current expansion programme could use an additional 50-million tonnes, and if the Sasol Mafutha project goes ahead it will need another 20-million tonnes annually, says Wakeford.
David Rutledge, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, has meanwhile forecast South African production to peak in 2011 at about 253-million tonnes a year.
This is supported by research by two American professors, says Wakeford, Tadeusz Patzek and Gregory Croft, published this year in the journal Energy.
“They estimate that South Africa's coal production from existing coal fields, when measured in energy units, peaked in 2007.
“They further contend that future mines are unlikely to reverse the trend since the economics of mining dictates that most accessible reserves are mined earlier on, so that the net energy return from the coal mining declines while the production costs rise over time,'' says Wakeford.
Eskom chief executive Brian Dames bemoaned the poor quality of coal Eskom is receiving in a briefing to parliamentarians earlier this month. Dames said that Eskom was losing 1 000 megawatts of power each day because of the low quality of coal it was being supplied.