13 Pros and Cons of Coal Energy

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In March 2017, President Donald Trump lifted a moratorium that had been in place for Federal coal leases granted by the United States. Lifting this moratorium allowed for companies to begin excavating this fossil fuel from public lands so that more coal energy could be produced.

The advantage of using coal energy is that it is usually a cost-effective resource. The current stockpiles of coal can provide the world with more than a century of energy, while US-based coal reserves could last over 400 years. With coal, we know that we have energy available through an infrastructure that supports its delivery.

The disadvantage of using coal energy is its potential damage to the environment. Carbon dioxide is released to the atmosphere in large quantities when coal is combusted for fuel. Additional emissions are released through the mining and delivery processes. This power resource could be changing how our planet is able to function.

Here are additional pros and cons of coal energy to think about.

The Pros of Coal Energy

1. The availability of coal makes it very affordable.
Beyond the stockpiles of coal that have already been mined, there is an estimated global reserve of this fossil fuel that could be more than 1 trillion tons. Whereas other fossil fuels, at current consumption levels and without any new deposit discoveries, will not last the century, coal gives us security in knowing that our current society and lifestyle has the potential of being around for many years to come.

2. The energy infrastructure supports coal.
Combusting coal has been a method of energy generation for more than two centuries. Even before the industrial sector discovered ways to harness the power that coal energy possesses, homes and businesses were throwing coal into fireplaces to warm their buildings. Engineers would throw coal into boilers to create steam energy for transportation. Our infrastructure was built around the idea that coal would fuel it.

3. The cost of coal is quite cheap.
The price of a ton of coal can be about as much as it would cost a family of four to have lunch somewhere. Because this fuel resource is so inexpensive, the power it produces and gets consumed is also relatively inexpensive. For many areas, coal is just a few cents per kilowatt hour, making the energy resource available to virtually everyone. It can be called upon at any time.

4. There is no lag time with coal energy.
Renewable energy resources, such as solar or wind power, may not have the same emissions that coal produces, but they cannot be used 24/7 either. If the wind stops blowing or the sun goes down, a community must rely on saved energy through batteries. With coal energy, it can be accessed whenever there is a need for power, including the ability to burn extra during peak demand times.

5. Clean coal technologies help to limit the emissions that are released.
As of 2017, coal energy is responsible for about 50% of the electricity being generated in the United States. Thanks to clean coal technologies, many of the emissions which are released during the combustion phase of this resource can be captured. This limits the potential damage to the environment and atmosphere while maintaining current infrastructures.

6. It can be converted into different forms of fuel.
Coal can be converted into a gas or into a liquid. When this process has been completed, coal energy burns cleaner than it would if the natural resource were being burned in its natural state. That is due to the fact that the particulate counts are reduced through this conversion process without compromising the high load factor that is generated.

The Cons of Coal Energy

1. The mining of coal destroys natural habitats.
To remove coal from the ground, various mining processes are used that destroy the natural habitat in that region. Part of that destruction involves the potential pollution of groundwater tables and the removal of trees. There is also the added danger of having a fire begin in a coal mine. A coal seam fire in New Castle, CO has been burning for more than 120 years.

2. Clean coal technologies aren’t without cost.
When looking at the process of carbon capture and storage, the technologies to convert current coal-fired plants to clean coal could greatly increase the energy costs for individual consumers. LiveScience estimates that some carbon capture and storage technologies could increase the price of energy by up to 75%.

3. The technology relies on a finite resource.
Although there are large deposits and stockpiles of coal to produce energy in the world today, it is a fossil fuel. That means it is a finite resource. At some point in time, our societies must look for alternatives for energy production before this resource runs out. If it took 200 years to create our infrastructure on coal, a similar amount of time may be necessary to transition to other forms of energy.

4. It could produce deadly consequences.
Coal may be a proven technology, but it is not without risk. Concentrated carbon dioxide, when piped out of a plant and into a storage technology, could be potentially deadly if inhaled. Carbon, when it is dissolved, is also highly acidic and could add toxins to the planet’s groundwater tables. Because there is such a destructive potential to coal energy, depending upon it for energy could make a society go backwards instead of forwards.

5. The mining process for coal leaves behind environmental toxins.
Byproducts of coal mining including arsenic, sulfur dioxide, selenium, and mercury. Miners who inhale coal dust can develop a condition that is called Black Lung Disease, which can make it difficult for the person to breath and reduce their overall quality of life. In total, several million tons of unusable waste are produced annually because of coal energy and that stuff needs to go somewhere.

6. It produces radiation.
Coal energy, when burned at a coal-fired power plant, produces more outward radiation exposure than a nuclear power plant would produce. The emissions are also linked to increased levels of asthma and lung cancer for local populations compared to other forms of energy.

7. It doesn’t move us forward.
Although clean coal is a positive evolution in the field of coal energy, we are essentially using the same technologies that our forefathers developed in the industrial revolution.

The pros and cons of coal energy show us that this technology has had a positive impact on society in the past, but our future may lie elsewhere. Although it is an affordable resource and provides reliable power, the potential damage to the planet may outweigh many of the benefits that can be obtained.

How do you feel about the continued use of coal energy?