It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Peak Coal

Indented text quoted from "The Maze of Ingenuity", Arnold Pacey, first MIT press paperback edition, pp 298 ff, 1985 edition, written in 1974. Words in italic are attributed therein to W. S. Jevons. (Hopefully this renders reasonably in your browser. )
During the 1860's, the earlier optimism of Babbage and many of his contemporaries was challenged in a well-argued book on Britains coal resources written by th eeconomist W. Stanley Jevons. The life of Victorian England depended so heavily on the steam engine, Jevons said, and accessible deposits of coal were relatively so limited, that the nation's material prosperity could not continue to increase for much longer.
He claimed that if the observed rate of increase were to continue indefinitely, then total quantity of coal mined prior to a future date, estimated as 1961, would inevitable eventually exceed total reserves.

What would happen, Jevons said, was
that coal would have to be obtained from progressively deeper seams, and so would become increasingly expensive. Consumption would no longer increase by 3.5 % annually. It would become static, and then begin to fall; 'the conclusion is inevitable, that our present happy, progressive condition is a thing of limited duration.' ...
He also said that if we
"lavishly and boldly push forward in the creation and distribution of our riches, it is hard to overestimate the pitch of benevolent influence to which we might attain in the present. But the maintenance of such a position is physically impossible. We have to make the momentous choice between brief greatness and longer continued mediocrity."


Steven said...

Yes, it was a horrible day in 1961 when we ran out of coal.

EliRabett said...

With respect to the UK, that pretty much happened, the mines went deeper and deeper, and pretty soon the cost of getting the coal came close to the value.

See Thatcher, Margret and the coal unions. The cost of getting the coal was already a big problem in the 1970s.

Michael Tobis said...

Well, yeah, it wasn't...

So the questions raised are 1) what did he get wrong and 2) does the peak oil argument depend on the same mistakes?

The first thing he got wrong was the growth in the rate of UK coal use, actually. It stopped around 1910.

A second thing he got wrong was thinking nationally rather than internationally, presuming that no country, observing the British example, would be so foolish as to voluntarily export their fuel.

The latter mistake definitely doesn't apply to peak oil, though it's pretty interesting. (A throwback to mercantilism in a mid nineteenth century economist. Presumably his understanding of economics was incomplete.)

Past futurism is a topic worthy of more than casual investigation, I think. As far as I know nobody has taken it up in earnest.

duffandnonsense said...

Is there anybody who thinks that any resource in constant use lasts forever, and wasn't Jevons, to use an old Brit expression, simply stating 'the bleedin' obvious'?

But, hey-ho, along came oil!

And as oil becomes scarce, which it isn't yet, then along will come another energy source.

That's humans for you, cunning little critters!
David Duff

tidal said...

duffandnonsense says: And as oil becomes scarce, which it isn't yet, then along will come another energy source.

21st Century Energy: Some sobering thoughts

"Transition to new energy sources is unavoidable, but here are five sobering first principles to remember along the way...

An impartial examination of some basic principles reveals five factors that will make the transition to a non-fossil world far more difficult than is commonly realised. These are: the scale of the shift; the lower energy density of the replacement fuels; the substantially lower power density of renewable energy extraction; intermittency of renewable flows; and uneven distribution of renewable energy resources."

Vaclav Smil

Smil knows more about the history and economics of previous energy transitions than just about anyone. Approaches relying simply on "but look what smart little monkeys we are!" are likely going to be proved vapid. The scale and the short time-frame for this transition are going to put us to the test.

David B. Benson said...

And, of course, David Rutledge offers the same opion about the world's supply of coal. He stated that reserves are seriously overestimated; the world experiences peak coal in about 2025 CE.

On TheOilDrum his article even does an IPCC type projection, coming in much below even the lowest of the IPCC ones. Do to peak coal.

gravityloss said...

What about oil shale, peat, etc all that stuff that gets more economical to extract as the cost of energy grows... and of course produces a lot of CO2 in electricity generation too.

I love it how people extrapolate from "coal to oil" that an "oil to future fantasy energy source" is a certainty.

I wonder what current civilization would be like if there weren't great oil reserves for some weird geochemical reason.

Would nuclear power have been invented earlier? Or would we be much further behind on practically everything technical? I lean towards the latter...

bernie said...

The issue with Britain and coal in the 70s was more the power of the mining unions, under-investment in a nationalized industry, the availability of natural gas, foreign exchange rates and the cost of mining coal in some of coal fields. Depth was not a major issue per se, non continuous seams plus depth was. The Yorkshire mines were particularly hard hit by these realities.