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An intricate relationship – Part 1

World Cement,

Fossil fuels currently meet about 80% of global energy demand. By 2035, the fossil fuel contribution is still predicted to be about 75%, even if all the planned renewable initiatives are implemented. This is due to the fact that the energy demand of emerging economies will increase by at least 40%, particularly in India and China, where almost 40% of the world population lives. In spite of all the efforts of the developed countries to reduce CO2 emissions, the non-fossil fuel contribution has decreased from 37% to 33% during the last 20 years, as more and more coal has been used in almost all sectors of the emerging economies.

For mineral processing industries, i.e., cement, coal is considered an ideal fuel. It provides the required flame shape, while the remaining ash becomes part of the clinker.

Fossil fuels: years of extraction remaining.
(Source: Historical Energy Statistics BP’s “Statistical Review of World Energy” published in mid-2013).

International coal market

As can be seen in Figure 1, coal remains the most abundant fuel. However, its price on the international market is nonetheless highly dependent on oil and gas prices. Meanwhile, existing pipeline networks restrict natural gas supply, unlike coal and oil. This is reflected in the abundance of gas in some countries and the fuel’s scarcity in others. For example, in Egypt, where heavy industry is struggling to meet its energy demand via natural gas, some cement plants operate at 75% capacity and are seeking to switch to coal and/or co-firing alternative fuels to make up the deficit.1 Several companies in Egypt have applied to the government for permits for coal and alternatives fuels during 2013. It is expected that they will be able to start using coal in 2014. This reflects a government change of plan to allow the use of coal instead of natural gas for cement manufacturing in response to the country’s current energy crisis.

A similar situation prevails in India and Pakistan, where a natural gas shortage is moving the cement industry to coal-/petcoke-firing options. Meanwhile, in a number of African countries, an increasing amount of coal is being fired in cement kilns. In Ethiopia, for example, the Mugher Cement Enterprise is converting from heavy fuel oil to coal firing, which would begin sometime in 2014.

After several decades of increasing use of coal in China, the Chinese government has taken steps to put a stop to the construction of more coal-fired power plants and has released a plan to cap coal consumption at below 65% of its total primary energy use by 2017 – in an attempt to reduce escalating air pollution. However, in the absence of an alternative fuel substitution, coal will remain the primary fuel of choice in the cement sector.

Russia has the world’s second largest coal reserves. However, its coal consumption has dropped during the last decade, from 30% to 12%, due to an abundance of natural gas coming online and being made available to all industries, including cement. Many cement kilns in Russia have yet to be modernised, but the fuel balance will remain in favour of coal once modernisation is completed.2

Historically, Latin America, unlike North America, has not been at the forefront of coal production and the cement industry in the region has deployed mostly heavy fuel oil. Colombia is the only significant producer of coal, followed by minor productions in Venezuela, Brazil, Chile and Argentina. Venezuela, with significant deposits of raw bitumen (Orimulsion), has not been very keen on coal until quite recently. With the modernisation of the cement industry, the use of coal in kilns and calciners is going to increase in Latin America.3

In Europe, the use of coal has declined over the past ten years, primarily due to renewable energy initiatives where subsidies are offered to both homeowners and industry. Some European homeowners and small businesses have gone for solar panels on rooftops, wind turbines and heat pumps, while European coal-fired power plants are starting to import wood pellets from the US.

Drax, the UK’s largest power generator (4000 MW), is a world leader in the conversion from coal to biomass in a quest to secure green energy credits. Its first converted boiler unit is due to become operational this year, and its third unit by 2016, giving a total generation capacity of 2000 MW using 100% wood pellets sourced from forestry waste. However, critics say that the wood is not always sourced from sustainable forests, is endangering wildlife and wastes energy in the preparation of the pellets and transporting them over long distances.

Written by T. Abbas, Cinar Ltd, UK. This is an abridged article from the May 2014 issue of World Coal Magazine, World Cement’s sister publication.

Read part 2 of this article here.

References and notes

  1. GUENIOUI, K., ‘Natural gas shortage in Egypt hits cement production’,
  2. BUTENKO, A., “The future of coal in Russia”, OJSC SUEK Strategy and Corporate Development Department, March 2011.
  4. Calport’s wind farm in Califonia, US.
  5. “CCS – Carbon Capture and Storage”, European Cement Research Academy (ECRA),

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