Coal – where to now?

Some non-financial background info on coal for those who are interested… Ignore this if you’re only interested in price charts etc.

As a rough guide, there’s the same energy (heat) content in a metric tonne of export grade (thermal) black coal as there is in 4.4 barrels of crude oil. That will vary a bit depending on the grade of coal and source of oil.

Coal ranges from lignite (brown coal) to sub-bituminous to black to anthracite. There are various sub categories within those groups. Actual mining in Australia for black coal (the common exportable grade) takes place mostly in Qld and NSW and on a much smaller scale in WA where it’s used locally in industry and power stations. Australia’s coal exports originate from Qld and NSW. Vic (lignite), SA (a rather unique type of sub-bituminous coal) and Tas (sub-bituminous) do not produce coal suitable for export. Production in those states is used locally for power generation (Vic, SA) and heavy industry, particularly paper mills and cement works (Tas). Coal is not mined in the NT.

The main way that coal competes with other fuels is for the generation of electricity. In Australia, about 80% of all electricity is produced from coal. About 10% comes from hydro (60% of that in Tas) and the rest is mostly from natural gas (WA and SA dominate gas consumption for electricity generation but it’s used in all states and supplies 95% of total generation in NT). Small amounts of oil are used for startup of coal-fired plant, in isolated communities and for peak power generation to the main grid.

Internationally, coal is far less dominant but is still by far the most important resource used for electricity generation. The major international sources are coal, nuclear, hydro, gas and oil in that order. There is significant room for coal to grow at the expense of nuclear and/or gas.

In the USA it’s coal, nuclear, gas, hydro, oil in that order. In the UK it’s gas, coal, nuclear and small amounts of various others (oil, renewables) in that order. In New Zealand it’s hydro, gas/coal (there’s significant switching between the two according to availability), geothermal and oil in that order.

Oil tends to be used mostly for peaking plants or as backup and in general it would not be economic to construct new coal-fired plant for this purpose unless the oil price really does head to the moon. New Zealand just built a new oil-fired plant solely for backup use. Coal and particularly gas-fired plants often use oil as a backup when the primary fuel source is in short supply. Various gas-fired plants in Australia do this from time to time.

Existing hydro plants have virtually zero cost and thus aren’t likely to be prematurely replaced and they have long lives. Typically they’re designed for a minimum life of 70-90 years although for most plants they ought to survive far longer than that with proper maintenance. There’s quite a few 100+ year old hydro plants still fully operational with the original machinery.

Non-hydro renewable energy sources aren’t a serious contender as a replacement for conventional power sources at the present time. They are, however, a clean and useful supplement in many cases.

So in practice it’s coal versus nuclear versus gas. As gas becomes expensive (far too expensive for economic power generation in US and UK now) it comes back to nuclear versus coal and that is more a question of politics than anything else.

If coal liquefaction ever gets off the ground in a big way then that would certainly increase coal demand. However, much of the interest so far is in using low grade brown coal rather than black coal. Various plants have been proposed in Victoria and New Zealand amongst other places. In my opinion there won’t be serious demand for black coal as a feedstock for “oil” production in the next 10 years as there simply isn’t anywhere near sufficient investment being made to build the necessary liquefaction plants on sufficient scale. That doesn’t mean there will be no demand for coal for that purpose though.

Coal is also relatively abundant comapred to oil and it’s still very easy to increase coal production. No different to any other mineral apart from oil/gas in that sense. It lacks genuine scarcity. Of course that doesn’t preclude a bull market, but it lacks the sort of scarcity which leads to wars etc.

This post for info only. I have intentionally not drawn any conclusions regarding price. Think about it and reach your own conclusions. :)