Once we had ‘peak coal’ too

Questioning the peak oil mantra can always be guaranteed to get someone in a lather. Steven commented on my blog (26 November) that the success rate of economists on the subject of resource depletion isn’t too good.

Well, actually it is.

As another commenter Steve W noted (24 November), Julian Simon handsomely won his bet with doomsayer Paul Erhlich that the prices of a basket of resources would fall rather than rise in real terms.

Interestingly, another respondent sent me this article by Lord Kelvin written in 1902.

Kelvin writes:

Coal is king of the industrial world. The king’s reign is limited. Sooner or later, it has been estimated that the world’s supply of coal will have been exhausted.

He goes on:

The enormous amount of coal required to run our great ocean steamships, our leviathans of the deep, and the innumerable factories of our cities is making such inroads upon the available store that nature cannot forever supply the demand. When all the coal of the earth is used, what then?

Kelvin’s answer:

Perplexed humanity confronted with the possibility of its industrial machinery being stopped for want of power, will be forced to turn from earth to air. In the world there is to be found a force that has stood man in good stead from time immemorial. Long before the days of the steam engine or the ocean liners, ships were wafted from shore to shore by means of the force that lurks in the air. The time will come – unless man’s ingenuity devises some means of replacing the exhausted coal supply with a fuel that will be equally efficacious – when the swift steaming greyhounds of the oceans will be dry-docked and their vitals torn out. Then the lightened ships will be fitted with the masts and sails of the old sailing days, and once more the seas will be dotted with vessels propelled by the method that is at present in decline.

Well, “man’s ingenuity” did find a way of replacing coal as a shipping fuel, and long before coal ran out.

But wait: Lord Kelvin had more ideas:

On land the effect of the exhaustion of the coal supply will be even more marked than on sea. Every building could be supplied with its own windmill, to use the motive power that wanders where it listeth on its roof top to turn wheels that will lift its elevators, generate electricity for its machinery; pump its water supply and do all that coal now makes possible in the machine room; sails on our factories, sails on our mills and in our shipyards to catch the slightest breath that blows and turn it into a means of moving the wheels of progress; wind power utilized everywhere as the servant of man, free for every one, working silently as a great force while the world sleeps.

Doesn’t that sound modern?  And doesn’t it sound just as fanciful today (in terms of replacing a large share of energy production) as it did a hundred years ago?

But Kelvin has a final idea:

Then, in the great land changes of the coalless age I see vast fields of vegetation planted especially to serve as fuel. Each agriculturist will have his own reservation where the family fuel will be grown; a new industry will be born – the cultivation of fuel.

Wow!  Al Gore thought that once too, but even he has acknowledged that much ethanol production has been a boondoggle that has displaced food production and hit people in poor countries hard.

Meanwhile coal, especially in cleaner forms, looks likely to be an important energy source for many years to come.