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Coal: energy of the future or energy of the past?

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  1. Introduction.
  2. Coal as oil use's corollary.
    1. The first fossil fuel energy until the massive exploitation of oil.
    2. The new demand of coal as consequence of the end of the oil's era.
    3. A North/South reading of the oil's crisis: nuclear vs. coal?
  3. Coal facing the growing climate change awareness.
    1. Environmental issues linked to coal.
    2. New technologies.
    3. The problem of transition.
  4. Conclusion.
  5. Bibliography.

In 2006, Doctor Heinz Scholtholt, member of a German firm of the energy industry (STEAG), pretended that Germany could become the worldwide leader of the coal industry by developing new clean coal technologies. Less than a year later, the German coalition's government has decided to stop its coal production by 2018, because the German coal isn't competitive enough anymore and needs a lot of subventions, and because nowadays most of the consumed coal in Germany comes from imports. These paradoxically declarations illustrates the current debate on coal. Indeed Germany is about to stop what highly contributed to its economic development and industrialization in the late nineteenth century and in the twentieth, although some specialists say that coal isn't only energy of the past. Actually the debate lies in the fact that energy scientists are divided on the future of coal, whether we are able to make it become energy of the future or not. But what does exactly mean energy of the past and energy of the future? Everybody agrees on the fact that coal contributed to the development of the Western world in the XIXth and XXth centuries, it is an historical fact. However an environmental awareness is growing, especially concerning the emissions of carbon dioxide that is one of the reasons why the debate on coal takes place nowadays. What is meant by ?energy of the future? is mainly an energy that is compatible with a cleaner environment and with sustainable development, but also which can face the problem of the growing energy demand. The latest of course concerns Western countries, which already have a high consumption of energy, but above all developing countries such as China and India that have an exploding demand of energy. Nowadays, coal represents 24, 4% of the Total Primary Energy Supply (TPES) (IEA 2003). It is mainly used as primary resource for producing electricity in developed countries since steam engines are obsolete, and would therefore be used in the future for electricity generation. For instance it currently produces a quarter of the American electricity (Kunstler 2005) and 40, 1% of the total electricity production in 2003 according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). But it is also produced for industrial, domestic and commercial heating, and is used for the steel industry as well. What is more in some developing countries its use is more basic through old techniques that are highly polluting (steam engines, coal-firing?). We will focus in this paper on the debate on the necessity of using coal in the future and with which consequences. So as to overwhelm the binary opposition past / future, we will develop in the first part the hypothesis that the coal use is linked with the capacity of oil's production.

[...] Finally we will discuss in the conclusion the systemic problem of centralization and the debate on slowing the energy demand Coal as oil use's corollary Instead of arguing that coal belongs to the past or to the future, it is interesting to examine why the question is currently debated, although coal seemed to have definitely been categorized among obsolete sources of energy. We can argue that coal was the first fossil fuel before oil was discovered, then it was superseded by it, and now we know that we will soon running out of oil, coal is back on the scene. [...]


[...] Even though this reading can be nuanced, for instance by the fact that Germany quitted nuclear and produced coal (but the contrary might happened in the next years), the North/South reading is rather satisfying because it highlights the problems of investments, of energy needs and of international relations Coal facing the growing climate change awareness As I have just pointed it out, developing countries are particularly concerned with coal production, and that is especially the case for China, which will become the first producer of carbon dioxide this year according to American scientists, or in 2009 according to the IEA. [...]


[...] Coal combusting release also mercury and other heavy particles, but the most important pollution factor is of course carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming. China is about to become the first producers of CO2 emissions and it will probably be followed by India in few years, that is the reason why the whole international community is concerned by greenhouse gases emissions nowadays. The main problem is respecting the Kyoto protocol and evolving beyond Kyoto towards an agreement fulfilled by every country. [...]

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