The Past and Future of Coal as an Energy Source

Connor Hasson
November 22, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2017


Fig. 1: The World Production of Coal from the early 1990's to present. [5] (Courtesy of BP.)

Coal has long been an important natural resource and played in important role in the industrialization of the world. First used in England, who possessed the resource in abundance. [1] The use of coal then spread to the rest of the continent, where it began to industrialize and provide electricity to the entirety of the continent. From here, it spread across the world where it aided in economic development and provides billions with electricity across the world. However, now it seems that coal has run its course and is an inefficient as well as dirty source of energy.

Peak Coal

Peak Coal is a theory that hypothesizes that coal will at some point hit its maximum point of production and then enter a terminal decline. [2] Since it is a finite natural resource, it cannot be extracted indefinitely and production must enter a decline at some point. [3] The production of coal in each region has a bell shaped curve where it grows exponentially for some time, depending on consumption and deposit size. Then, reaches a plateau, which from here, will enter a permanent decline. According to Qi et al., it is thought that so far we have extracted 309 gigatons of the 680 gigatons of all economically mineable coal. [4] Estimates can vary vastly, however, and the range of reserves is stated to be between 500 gigatons and 1100 gigatons. [3] Reaver and Khare estimate that the end of increasing coal production is to be in the 2020-2030 range, but could potentially occur sooner than this. [3] Over the last few years, coal production has stagnated or fallen. It is possible that this is an aberration, but in many countries it is becoming more economical to use natural gas or renewable resources instead of coal.

The Phase out of Coal

Coal has historically been a very cheap energy form, However, new types of energy production such as natural gas, and renewables are beginning to beat out coal for the cheapest source of energy. This will help to curve carbon emissions and help fight climate change.

© Connor Hasson. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] D. Mamurekli, "Environmental Inpacts of Coal Mining and Coal Utilization in the UK," Acta Montanistica Slovaca 15, 134 (2010).

[2] R. C. Milici, R. M. Flores, and G. D. Stricker, "Coal Resources, Reserves, and Peak Coal Production in the United States," Int. J. Coal Geol. 113, 109 (2013).

[3] N. G. F. Reaver and S. V. Khare, "Imminence of Peak in US Coal Production and Overestimation of Reserves," Int. J. Coal Geol. 131, 90 (2014).

[4] Y. Qi et al., "China's Post-Coal Growth," Nat. Geosci. 9, 564 (2016).

[5] "BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2017," British Petroleum, June 2017.