Tuesday, September 15, 2009

An international shortage

I am currently at a meeting in the Carpathian Mountains along with some 160 mining engineers from various parts of the world, and they are talking about what must be done in the future to ensure that coal can be mined effectively and efficiently to meet the coming demands for energy as other fuels pass their peak, and alternate sources of energy likely fail to meet the needs that society has for energy.

Most of the attendees are from Poland – a country that has one of the more detailed programs for educating the engineers that the industry needs. Within the comprehensive group of disciplines defined as mining, but including mining machines, robotics, geological engineering etc this country produces a significant part of the total number of global mining engineers that graduate each year. Yet even here academia is struggling to meet the needs that industry has for new engineers. We heard tonight that one company alone would like to hire 300 new engineers – which equates to more than the total graduating class in the country. But to also put that in context it is about equivalent to the total number of mining engineers that are graduated in most of the Western countries including Australia that also produce mining engineers. (The numbers do vary somewhat, however, depending on definition, since in Eastern Europe there are a sufficient number of sub-specialties that accurate counts between countries become more difficult because of problems of cross-discipline identification).

Why do they need these engineers – well consider that, apropos my post from last night on the gas from Turkmenistan, Poland is going to be one of those countries hurt if Russia cannot provide enough gas to meet the levels of import the country needs to meet demand. With little choice Poland must fall back on the resource that allows it to help itself.
Sitting on an estimated 140 years' worth of coal reserves, Poland . . . . which has a population of 38 million, generates 96 percent of its electricity in power stations fired by coal, much of it from the country's still-plentiful Silesian reserves in the south.

In contrast, the proportion in neighbouring Germany is 60 percent, and in France, 10 percent.
. . . . "Poland won't be in a position by 2020 to make significant changes to this dominant technology," said Wladyslaw Mielczarski, an expert from the European Energy Institute think-tank

So what can the country do? Like so much of the rest of the world it is hard to attract students into this discipline, which still has the image of primitive force – despite the introduction of a variety of technological developments that have considerably “modernized” the field. Those that graduate are still finding enough job offers to go around – within the global market place.
But with demand for new engineers at about twice the supply rate the prospects for dramatic modernization and change are limited at best. Why ? Because there is not enough of a trained workforce with enough time to do the research. And mining is not a major research area of interest in many countries (The United States, for example, closed the Bureau of Mines and the support for research that the agency had, until then, provided).

Is the industry concerned about the problems of carbon dioxide? Well consider that it just sold a large quantity of carbon credits to Japan.
The European Union's largest coal miner Kompania Weglowa will sell carbon dioxide offsets to Japanese utility Chugoku Electric Power, Kompania Weglowa's chief executive said on Tuesday.

Kompania Weglowa will sell 944,000 tonnes of offsets, called Emissions Reduction Units (ERUs), over three years for about 8 million euros ($11.71 million), Miroslaw Kugiel told a news conference.
Yes the industry has problems, and this, one of at least three meetings on Mining Technology in Poland in the next ten days, is trying to bring together those that have chosen to address those problems with technical advances. But in much the same way as in other countries it is much more fashionable, at least publically, to talk about the risks of climate change, than it is to be concerned that the policies that are being put in place will deny the world the energy supplies that are available and that it needs in the short term to sustain society until realistic alternatives can be developed.

There seems to be, from conversations with participants, less money available for research to answer the problems that the industry has to solve. Even with enough reserves, Poland must mine thinner seams at greater depths, and the most productive technologies of today should perhaps be replaced since there may be better alternative methods for those changing conditions. But where is the money to fund those developments?

And who will there be to work on them, when the industrial demand for graduates exceeds (even today) the supply and so salaries rise, graduate student numbers fall, and replacements for faculty become much harder to find.

I suspect that very few, if any, commentators are aware, let alone care about these issues. But these are the problems that will control the fuel bills of the next two decades – and so commentators should be aware at least of the current damage being done to that future.

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