Coal’s continuing dominance should inspire wind


May 19, 2014

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The use of canaries in British coal mines came to an end in 1987. However, in the 27 years since, the industry hasn’t gone the way of the poor songbird. It’s boomed.

Countries talk a good game about embracing green energy, including wind. Many are doing so. But the ‘black stuff’ still provides 40% of global electricity needs.

Look at the world’s biggest wind markets.

China has most installed wind power (91GW), but it is also the world’s largest coal producer and consumer. The US has the second most installed wind power (61GW), but it is also the world’s second-largest producer of coal.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency has said annual coal consumption grew 60% between 2000 and 2012; and it has forecast that demand will grow on average 2.3% a year until 2018. Coal prices have fallen due to oversupply and weaker-than-expected demand, but this has simply forced producers to cut their costs in order to maximise profits.

The only possible bright spot is that growth in demand is slowing. But we see little evidence that either appetite for coal or confidence in the sector is dwindling.

This brings us to the disaster in Soma in Turkey.

This accident is awful. It has killed 301 coal miners, and again highlights how dirty and dangerous the coal industry is compared to most energy sources.

But it is only the size of this one accident that is unprecedented. Deaths in the coal sector are commonplace. More than 1,000 workers died in Chinese coal mines last year, and 50 in the US. And that’s before you factor in long-term health issues.

Even so, disasters like Soma are increasing pressure from utilities on energy producers to source their coal from more ethical sources. And that pressure is coming from all angles. At one extreme it includes the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund and, at the other, the Pope.

Unsurprisingly then, this pressure has started to have some effect. For example, in 2012, a group of major coal buyers formed the Bettercoal initiative to improve ethical standards.

But here’s the thing. Despite these changes, there is no a big global move away from coal. The US may burn less of the stuff but they still willingly sell it – it remains a significant all-American export.

Worse still, even if global sales do start to dry up, it won’t necessarily lead to a big move towards wind. It could equally benefit shale gas, nuclear and oil.

However, it’s not time for the wind industry to lose heart. Rather, it’s a timely reminder that as an industry we must continue to innovate, invest and evolve. That means focusing on the introduction of more efficient turbines and on technology that can make its contributions to the grid less intermittent.

It also means we must avoid the temptation to point towards the disaster in Turkey and focus solely on how it demonstrates coal’s shortcomings. Focusing on wind’s positive commercial impacts is a much more tuneful song to sing.

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