Everyone agrees that America has enormous quantities of coal underground. But how much of that coal can practically be mined? Recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey and National Academy of Science, among other organizations, suggest that supply problems may come much sooner than we have been led to think; indeed, one German analytic group has forecast that U.S. coal production will peak 20 years from now—well within the operating lifetime of power plants being built today.
Utilities might wish to wait until renewables are still more affordable before making the switch from old, familiar energy sources to ones that will require new infrastructure for generation, storage and transmission. But doing so entails more than higher climate impacts from the burning of carbon-rich coal. It also constitutes an enormous gamble: the utilities assume that when renewables become clearly the cheaper option, investments can be quickly mobilized to make the transition to wind, solar and geothermal. But with fossil fuel prices rising relentlessly in the meantime, will the economy then be resilient enough to summon the needed capital?
If America doesn't seriously begin the transition to renewable energy now, we may well get caught, not many years hence, with too little coal and not enough installed alternatives [Richard Heinberg, "Iowa's Future Shouldn't Depend on Fossil Fuels," Des Moines Register, 2009.09.02].
That's what I said!