Peak coal

Peak coal

Peak coal is the point in time at which the maximum global coal production rate is reached, after which, according to the theory, the rate of production will enter to a terminal decline. Coal is a fossil fuel formed from plant matter over the course of millions of years. It is a finite resource and thus considered to be a non-renewable energy source.

There are two different peaks: one measured by mass (i.e. metric tons) and another by energy output (i.e. petajoules). The energy output per mass has dropped significantly since 2000, so the energetic peak will come much sooner than the mass peak.

The estimates for global peak coal production vary wildly. Many coal associations suggest the peak could occur in 200 years or more, while scholarly estimates predict the peak to occur as early as 2010. Research in 2009 by the University of Newcastle in Australia concluded that global coal production could peak sometime between 2010 and 2048.[1] Global coal reserve data is generally of poor quality and is often biased towards the high side.[2] Collective projections generally predict that global peak coal production may occur sometime around 2025 at 30 percent above current production in the worst case scenario, depending on future coal production rates.[3][4]


Hubbert's theory

The contemporary concept of peak coal follows from M. King Hubbert's Hubbert peak theory,[citation needed] which is most commonly associated with Peak oil. Hubbert's analysis showed how each oil well, region, and nation has a depletion curve.[5] However, this question was originally raised by William Stanley Jevons in his book The Coal Question back in 1865.

Hubbert noted that United States coal production grew logarithmically at a steady 6.6% per year from 1850 to 1910. Then the growth leveled off. He concluded that no finite resource could sustain exponential growth. At some point, the rate of production will have to peak and then decline until the resource is exhausted. He theorized that production rate plotted versus time would show a bell-shaped curve, declining as rapidly as it had risen.[6] Hubbert used his observation of the US coal production to predict the behavior of peak oil.

Peak coal for individual nations

As of 2005, the top coal-producing countries were China (44% of world production), United States (20%), India (8%), and Australia (7%). Each of these four largest coal-producing countries are experiencing significant increases in coal production.[7]

People's Republic of China

The People's Republic of China is the world’s largest coal extractor and has the third largest reserves after Russia and the United States. The Energy Watch Group predicts that the Chinese reserves will peak around 2015.[2] The EWG also predicts that the recent steep rise in production will be followed by a steep decline after 2020. The US Energy Information Administration projects that China coal production will continue to rise through 2030.[8]

United States

Total Mass Extracted

Coal production peaked in the early 1900s, then declined sharply during the depression years of the 1930s. Coal production peaked again in the 1940s, then declined during the 1950s.[5] Then coal production revived, and has been on a nearly continual increasing trend since 1962, exceeding the previous peaks. Production in 2006 was a record 1.16 billion short tons.[9] High-grade anthracite coal peaked in 1914;[5] and declined from 44 million tons in 1950 to 1.6 million tons in 2007. Bituminous coal production has also been declining since 1990. The slack has been taken up by large increases in subbituminous coal production.[9] Comprehensive analysis of historical trends in US coal production, reserve estimates along with a possible future outlook has been recently published scientific journals on coal geology .[10]

In 1956, Hubbert estimated that US coal production would peak in about the year 2150.[5] In 2004, Gregson Vaux used the Hubbert model to predict peak US coal production in 2032.[11]

Energetic Peak

Coal production in the United States, currently the world's second largest producer, has undergone multiple peaks and declines, but total coal energy output peak was reached in 1998 at 598 million tons of oil equivalents (Mtoe); by 2005 this had fallen to 576 Mtoe, or about 4% lower.[12][13]


Australia has substantial coal resources, mostly brown coal, it is responsible for almost 40% of global coal exports worldwide, and much of its current electricity is generated from coal-fired power stations. There are tentative plans to very slowly phase out coal electricity generation in favour of gas, although these plans are still a topic of much debate in Australian politics.

Long-term plans for coal in Australia include large-scale export of brown coal to large developing nations such as China and India at very cheap prices. Other groups such as the Australian Greens, suggest that coal be left in the ground to avoid its potential combustion either in Australia or in importer nations.

Research in 2009 by the University of Newcastle in Australia concluded that Australian coal production could peak sometime after 2050.[1] While the Australian Coal Association (ACA) optimistically estimates that Australia's identified black coal resources could last more than 200 years based on rate of production in 2007, this does not account for brown coal stocks.[14]

New South Wales

According to calculations conducted for the Hunter Community Environment Centre in Newcastle, the Australian state of New South Wales 10,600 million tonnes of coal reserves would be exhausted by 2042, based on current industry growth and production rates of about 3.2 per cent a year.[14]

United Kingdom

Coal output peaked in 1913 in Britain at 287m tons and now accounts for less than one percent of world coal production. 2007 production was around 15m tons.[15]


According to the Earth Watch Group, Canadian coal production peaked in 1997.[2]<-- p40 -->


Germany hit peak hard coal production in 1958 at 150 million tons. In 2005 hard coal production was around 25 million tons.[2]<-- p42 --> Total coal production peaked in 1985 at 578 million short tons, declined sharply in the early 1990s following German reunification, and has been nearly steady since 1999. Total coal production in 2005 was 229 million short tons, four percent of total world production.[7]

World peak coal

USEIA world coal projection.jpg
  • 2150 M. King Hubbert

M. King Hubbert's 1956 projections from the world production curve placed world peak coal at 2150.[16]

  • 2025 Energy Watch Group

Coal: Resources and Future Production[2]<--p 7 -->, published on April 5, 2007 by the Energy Watch Group (EWG) found that global coal production could peak in as few as 15 years.[17] Reporting on this, Richard Heinberg also notes that the date of peak annual energetic extraction from coal will likely come earlier than the date of peak in quantity of coal (tons per year) extracted as the most energy-dense types of coal have been mined most extensively.[18]

  • Institute for Energy

The Future of Coal by B. Kavalov and S. D. Peteves of the Institute for Energy (IFE), prepared for European Commission Joint Research Centre, reached conclusions similar to those of Energy Watch Group, and stated that "coal might not be so abundant, widely available and reliable as an energy source in the future".[17] Kavalov and Peteves did not attempt to forecast a peak in production.

  • US Energy Information Administration projects world coal production to increase through 2030.[19]

See also


  1. ^ a b The University of Newcastle, Australia, Research forecasts world coal production could peak as soon as 2010, October 28, 2009
  2. ^ a b c d e "Coal: Resources And Future Production" (PDF). Energy Watch Group. 2007-07-10. p. 8. Retrieved 2010-08-20. 
  3. ^ Coal: Resources and Future Production, 47 page report by Energy Watch group, March 28, 2007 (revised July 10, 2007)
  4. ^ Uranium Resources and Nuclear Energy, Energy Watch Group, December 2006
  5. ^ a b c d e M. King Hubbert (1956-06). "Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels 'Drilling and Production Practice'" (PDF). API. p. 36. Retrieved 2008-04-18. 
  6. ^ M. King Hubbert (1956-06). "Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels 'Drilling and Production Practice'" (PDF). API. p. 8. Retrieved 2008-04-18. 
  7. ^ a b US Energy Information Agency: World coal production, 1980-2005 (Excel spreadsheet)
  8. ^ US Enegy Information Administration, International Energy Outlook 2008, p.52, PDF file, accessed 24 January 2009,
  9. ^ a b US Energy Information Agency: Coal production, selected years, 1949-2007
  10. ^ Mikael Höök, Kjell Aleklett, 2009. Historical trends in American coal production and a possible future outlook, International Journal of Coal Geology, article in press
  11. ^ Gregson Vaux (2004-05-27). "The Peak in U.S. Coal Production". From the Wilderness. Retrieved 2008-06-30. 
  12. ^ Energy Watch Group (2007) Report "COAL: RESOURCES AND FUTURE PRODUCTION"
  13. ^, Peak coal: sooner than you think, Richard Heinberg, May 21 2007
  14. ^ a b "Reserves to dry up as clean coal becomes viable". The Sydney Morning Herald. 2007-04-10. 
  15. ^ David Strahan (2008-03-05). "Lump sums". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-06-09. 
  16. ^ M. King Hubbert (1956-06). "Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels 'Drilling and Production Practice'" (PDF). API. p. 21. Retrieved 2008-04-18. 
  17. ^ a b Richard Heinberg (2007-05-21). "Peak coal: sooner than you think". Energy Bulletin. Archived from the original on 2008-05-22. Retrieved 2008-06-06. 
  18. ^ Richard Heinberg (2007-03). "burn the furniture". Richard Heinberg. Retrieved 2008-06-06. 
  19. ^ US Energy Information Administration: International Energy Outlook 2008, accessed 25 January 2009.

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