Coal is a variety of solid, combustible, sedimentary, organic rocks that are composed mainly of carbon and varying amounts of other components such as hydrogen, oxygen, sulphur and moisture. Coal is formed from vegetation that has been consolidated between other rock strata and altered by the combined effects of pressure and heat over millions of years. Many different classifications of coal are used around the world, reflecting a broad range of ages, compositions and properties.
Coal currently provides 40% of the world’s electricity needs. It is the second source of primary energy in the world after oil, and the first source of electricity generation. Since the beginning of the 21st century, it has been the fastest-growing global energy source. The last decade’s growth in coal use has been driven by the economic growth of developing economies, mainly China. Irrespective of its economic benefits for the countries, the environmental impact of coal use, especially that coming from carbon dioxide emissions, should not be overlooked. Despite positive efforts to build more efficient plants, to retrofit old plants and to decommission the oldest, least efficient ones, the current pace is far from what is needed. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the most promising technology to reach near-zero CO2 emissions from large CO2 sources. Although it is developing it is far from the required deployment-level to keep CO2 emissions at acceptable levels.
Coal use has never stopped increasing and the forecasts indicate that, unless a dramatic policy action occurs, this trend will continue in the future. If this happens, then the IEA believes greater efforts are needed by governments and industry to embrace cleaner and more efficient technologies to ensure that coal becomes a much cleaner source of energy in the decades to come. In the United States, with low prices of both coal and gas and where enough coal and gas capacity exists, changes in relative prices of gas and coal give rise to switching from coal to gas or viceversa in the generation mix. But price is not the only factor determining how much gas and coal is used in power generation. The publication Gas to Coal Competition in the US Power Sector provides useful insights to understand what have occurred and to project the future coal and gas demand.
On coal-related matters, the IEA established and takes advice from its Coal Industry Advisory Board.
See more related material:
The Impact of Global Coal Supply on Worldwide Electricity Prices
21st Century Coal
The Global Value of Coal
Facing China’s Coal Future: Prospects and Challenges for Carbon Capture and Storage (Chinese version)