15 April 2020

Farewell To Oil and Coal

We aren't there yet. But, the twenty-first century global economy is gradually weaning itself from coal and oil.

The Death of King Coal

The demise of coal is further along. There are basically just two main uses of coal in the economy left. It is used predominantly by utility companies to generate electricity, and to a much, much lesser extent, to make "coke" which is an intermediate product in heavy industrial processes like steel production. In almost every other application, other fuels have been substituted for it.

But, utilities are moving away from coal. Mostly this is because coal fired power plants are a leading cause of air pollution that degrades air quality for breathing (leadings to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of deaths each year). They are also major contributors to global warming. But, alternatives like renewable energy, nuclear power and natural gas fired power plants are much less air polluting. Coal has other down sides as well. Mining it, frequently via strip mining, destroys the surface environment were it is mines. Solid waste from goal isn't just gross and voluminous. It also has non-negligible levels of toxic and radioactive waste. Mining coal leads to high rates of working injury and work related illnesses. And, the large volumes of coal that are transported, mostly by rail and barge, lead to a non-negligible number of transportation deaths. 

Utilities have seen the writing on the wall and pro-actively stripped coal fired power plants out of the electrical grid at a rapid rate, mostly substituting a mix of renewables and natural gas fired plants which are cheaper to build than coal fired plants because they don't need as many expensive pollution controls. Fracking has also increased natural gas supplies. Improve technologies for generating wind power and solar power that have become economically competitive with coal have also tipped the balance. Renewables don't need emissions controls, don't have fuel costs (and hence also do not expose utilities to the uncertainties of oil and gas price fluctuations in the global markets), have seen prices decrease due to manufacturing economies of scale as they have been more widely utilized, and have seen costs fall and efficiencies rise with technological advances in wind turbines and solar power generation.

Renewables recently surpassed coal as a share of the power grid, with a dramatic drop in coal's share of the total since President Trump was elected, despite the fact that we've never had such an overtly pro-coal President. Employment in coal mining and related transportation and coal fired power plant operations have likewise dwindled, reducing the political clout of the coal industry to almost nothing outside of the two leading coal production states in the U.S., West Virginia and Wyoming, and even there coal's political clout is waning.

The cleaner electrical power grid has also made conversion of vehicles from petroleum based fuel internal combustion engines to electricity an environmentally desirable option, which it was not when coal and oil fired power plants were the main source of electricity.

The Gradual Marginalization Of Oil

While oil isn't quite as polluting as coal, it is likewise a major source of air pollution, so environmental regulations have discouraged it. Oil has also grown more expensive over time as demand has exhausted lower cost supplies of it, although the development of fracking has increased the availability of higher cost supplies and reduced U.S. oil imports greatly.

For that reason, the economy has also gradually eased away from using oil. It has several main uses.

* Oil based products like gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and boat fuel are still the predominant source of fuel for cars, trucks, trains, construction equipment, farm vehicles, military vehicles, planes, boats, ships and rocket ships. It is also a primary lubricant in those vehicles and many other industrial machines. Cars and trucks make up that lion's share of oil demand in the transportation sector.

* Heating oil is a leading means of home heating and other space heating in the Northeast United States that is built into the architectural infrastructure in a way that takes lots of time and money to replace.

* Oil is used to run electrical power plants in Hawaii and Alaska where transporting coal or natural gas to power plants is more cumbersome. Oil is easier to transport by sea, Hawaii has essentially no local fossil fuel supplies, and Alaska is a major oil production center but has few economically viable coal resources. Gasoline and diesel fuels are also used nationwide to run small electricity generators in places where the infrastructure may be unavailable like construction sites and temporary camp sites, and when utility power grids go out.

* Oil is still used as fuel or a part of an increasingly small share of heavy industrial processes.

* Oil is a major ingredient in non-organic agricultural pesticides and fertilizers.

* Oil is the primary ingredient in plastics and certain other synthetic materials like nylon.

Plant and animal derived liquid oils and alcohols, like biodiesel (derived from animal grease and cooking oils) and corn based ethanol can substitute for petroleum in most circumstances. But, the volumes of liquid hydrocarbons and fuels that can be produced economically from these sources is tiny compared to current petroleum demand. These sources might sustain niche applications, for example, as lubricants, as fuel in construction equipment, farm equipment, off road vehicles, aircraft, boats, and ships, for reduced volumes of pesticides and fertilizers, and plastics. But, these sources would be hard pressed to replace more than a few percent of current petroleum consumption.

A number of technological developments, however, could bring us to a post-petroleum economy.

Prospects For Electric Vehicles

The single biggest one would be better batteries that make electric vehicles economically preferable to gasoline and diesel fueled cars and trucks. We are at the brink of this transition. Completely plug in electric cars are now mass produced by multiple major automobile manufacturers including Nissan, BWM and the all electric firm, Tesla. Almost every major automobile manufacturer makes small electric vehicles in at least pilot project volumes and has plans to make many more.

These vehicles are living proof that the only barrier to electric vehicles is the batteries. In all other respects, electric vehicles are prefect or superior substitutes for conventional gasoline and diesel powered vehicles with no vehicle locus emissions, generally better accelerations at low speeds, much lower energy costs per mile, less noise, and fewer maintenance requirements because electric motors are simpler and having fewer moving parts that need to be maintained. Four wheel drive for electric vehicles is simply a software issue that has been solved, although not yet widely adopted. 

Electric vehicle technologies also scale well. They are as well suited to industrial scale construction machinery and farm tractors as to subcompact cars. 

Basically the only issue is that different electric vehicle applications have different battery or power source demands. Trains don't need batteries at all, and can be plugged in. Long haul ships and trucks need lots of range. Propeller aircraft can work but need very high energy density of their ranges are very constricted. Intracity urban transportation requires less range and less widely adopted charging infrastructure than intercity and rural transportation.

Batteries are the sole barrier. There are several attributes of electric vehicle batteries that are desirable: (1) cost, (2) range and energy density,  (4) speed of recharging, (3) cold temperature sensitivity, (5) battery lifetime and charging repeatability, and (6) the environmental impact of battery production.

The current mass produced standard for electric vehicle batteries is satisfactory in many applications but still limiting. 

Electric vehicles are more expensive than gasoline and diesel vehicles due to battery costs that is really only competitive cost-wise without subsidies, despite lower per mile fuel costs, at gasoline prices on the order of $6-$8 per gallon, when gasoline is currently selling at record lows for under $2 a gallon in the U.S. and is at $4 per gallon in even the most expensive U.S. markets in normal times. In Europe and much of the rest of the world, gasoline prices at twice as high or more so the tipping point is much closer. But, the long term trend since petroleum is not a renewable resource will always be up even though fracking put a short term dent in that trend.

Tesla electric vehicles have a range on a full charge comparable to a gasoline or diesel powered vehicle, but take half an hour to a full evening to recharge depending on the voltage of the charging station, compared to a few minutes to refuel an ordinary car's gas tank, and the amount of high voltage charging infrastructure in place is still modest. The energy density of batteries is also modest enough that it adds a significant share of the total weight of the vehicle, and the large volume of battery material needed drives up their cost and increases the amount of energy the vehicle needs to attain a particular range. Electric vehicle battery performance, in terms of range, is significantly degraded in frigid winter temperatures.

It appears that current electric vehicle batteries usually last at least 100,000 miles, but replacing them even once during the lifetime of a vehicle significantly adds to the lifetime cost of the vehicle, and since batteries degrade in performance gradually over time, used electric vehicles have less range per full charge.

Most electric vehicle batteries are either lead acid, or lithium based. Both are very problematic environmentally.

Progress is being made on all fronts. Electric vehicle battery prices are falling rapidly which reduces the price of electric vehicles overall. The development of batteries with more energy density, more recharging longevity, and less environmental impact is making rapid progress because of the huge potential economic payoff for doing so now that electric vehicles are approaching a tipping point. 

Other changes are also being made in the context in which electric vehicles need to fit. High voltage charging infrastructure is on its way to being more standardized and more widely available. Japan, China and Europe have good passenger rail systems that reduce the need for long distance trips. There are lots of niche applications in which long range and an excellent charging station network aren't necessary. Vehicle sharing and rentals can reduce the need for peak range vehicles that are used that way only infrequently.

Other Changes

Space heating in the Northeast could transition to natural gas or electricity in a major initiative.

The power girds in Alaska and Hawaii could be shifted away from oil to nuclear and/or natural gas and/or renewables (e.g. tidal and wind power).

Organic agriculture makes a dent in petroleum demand, albeit a small one.

Reduced use of plastics makes a dent in petroleum demand, albeit a small one. 

More fuel efficient vehicles, greater transit use, and urban planning to reduce transportation requirements can reduce petroleum demand.


Dave Barnes said...

Needs more words highlighting the difference between thermal coal and metallurgical coal.
The volumes of each are important.
They are completey different in composition and are not substitutes for each other.

Guy said...

Hi Andrew,

As you no doubt know, base grid generation capability is not a key niche for solar or wind. To replace coal (and to a lessor extent gas) in this role either nuclear or a stored energy system is required. What's going to kill coal and most gas is grid level solar at $0.02 kWh. Urban planning and mass transit probably isn't visible in the final solution.