Every source of energy has its advantages and disadvantages. Table bellow presents the key issues connected with using a given fuel. As shown, the main problem connected with coal as a source of energy is its impact on the natural environment, but the situation is heading towards improvement; highly efficient power plants are producing more energy with less emissions, also some engineers are working on futuristic technologies of underground coal gasification (UCG) or carbon capture and storage (CCS). These projects might strengthen the position of coal in global energy mix.
The role of coal in fulfilling the world energy needs is also highly important because it is a guarantee of supply safety. Coal is very easy to storage and does not require any specialized buildings or containers. Also its transport is rather simple: coal does not need high pressure pipelines and the routes of coal transport are not needed to be somehow specially protected. The same simplicity goes for the coal power plants: they can work under any weather conditions (unlike water and wind powered power plants) and they are not as sensitive as nuclear power plants. Also, for almost 10 years now global prices of coal are 6-7 USD/GJ lower than prices of oil and natural gas. They are also more stable; between 1989 and 2009 price of oil was balancing between 2.50 and 14 USD/GJ, the price of natural gas between 2 and 11 USD/GJ and coal prices only between 2 and 6 USD/GJ.
Yet the biggest factor making coal such an important part of global energy safety is its availability. Expressed on the map bellow, coal resources are evenly distributed between the biggest energy consuming regions: North America, Eurasia and Pacific Asia.
77% of world oil reserves are localized in the OPEC member countries and 1/4 of all natural gas deposits in only one country – Russia. Comparing to that, coal distribution is making this source of energy accessible to much more countries, which is making coal prices and security of supply more stable.
World Energy Council estimates that global coal reserves should be sufficient enough for almost 120 years (average). The R/P marker (reserves to production; quotient of documented deposits and annual production) shows that North American reserves would last for 235 years, meanwhile European and Eurasian (Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan) – for 236 years. And though this resources are rather well documented, the further exploration in Asia and Africa might discover new coal deposits. Again, comparing to other fossils, coal reserves and deposits are much more sufficient; proven oil and gas reserves are equivalent to around 46 and 59 years at current production levels. Moreover, coal reserves only include what is considered economically accessible at any given time, taking into account only current available mining technology and costs. Coal resources on the other hand, include all potential coal deposits and are estimated to 17,000 billion tons of coal, 17 times more than coal reserves, which makes coal the world’s most abundant energy fuel.
It is fair to say that all developed and developing countries are relying on coal for the stable and secure supply of electric energy. Figure bellow shows the share of coal in fuels mix:
It can be seen that all the countries with major coal deposits are building their energy production on their own resources. Graph shows also that coal is one of the most important fuels for generating electricity on almost all continents, in total accounting for 41% of the world’s electricity generation.
Being too precious for the world’s transport sector, oil is the least common fossil fuel used for electricity production and its usage is decreasing in all large countries (with exception of Saudi Arabia and Russia). Gas on the other hand has its golden years and its usage was the fastest growing number within the fossil. The biggest growth was recorded in US, Russia, Italy, Iran and Thailand. Coal usage is growing a little slower, but taking into consideration global anti-carbon crusade such an increase is an astonishing result.