The 2016 US Presidential Election brought coal back into the spotlight of public consciousness. The world has been shifting toward cleaner energies, such as wind and solar, but there has also been an emphasis in recent years to create “clean coal.” Coal is a fossil fuel, extracted through mining, and it is cheap and easy to use. On the other hand, burning coal can also have significant consequences to local and global environments.
Is coal a power resource that we should still be using as a primary source of energy? The answer lies in the advantages and disadvantages of coal for our modern world.
Here Are the Advantages of Coal
1. It is available in an abundant supply.
Industrialized countries, including the United States, India, China, and Russia, have a large amount of coal that is available to them. Some estimates have the US holding enough coal that has already been mined to fuel current resources for the next 400 years. That means we have access to this fuel in abundance, allowing societies to focus on other infrastructure needs.
2. It has a high load factor.
Using coal as a fuel provides a society with the potential for continuous power. Many infrastructures are specifically designed to use coal, offering a good utilization rate for this fossil fuel. It also provides a high load factor, giving us access to an efficient and predictable level of energy through combustion. That’s predictability isn’t something that other fuel resources can currently provide with current technologies.
3. Coal offers a rather low capital investment.
Many of our fuel and power generation technologies are already designed to use coal. This limits the amount of a capital investment which is required to create a new societal resource, especially when compared to nuclear or renewable energy resources.
4. Carbon capture and storage technologies can reduce potential emissions.
Safe capture and storage of carbon dioxide, referred to as CCS, is a technology that would capture and store the carbon dioxide that is produced by combusting this fossil fuel. Scrubbers and filters can also capture the CO2 before it is able to get into the atmosphere. This limits the amount of potential global warming that would be triggered by an increase in coal use.
5. It can be converted into different formats.
Coal can be converted into a gaseous state or into a liquid and still be used as if it were refined or raw. The conversion to a liquid or a gas creates a fuel that burns cleaner as well, which limits the production of ash and other byproducts that are created by the combustion process.
6. Coal can be used with renewables to reduce emissions.
Biomass technologies can be incorporated into existing coal facilities, allowing for a dual fuel source in the same power plant. This allows for coal to be used, but in lesser amounts, and that can help to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and ash that gets produced from the burning process. This allows coal, which is a mature industry, to maintain its economic impact without fully compromising it while environmental protections can also be implemented.
7. It is a full-time energy resource.
Unlike solar or win, you can burn coal 24/7 to produce energy. This means it is a reliable power source that offers predictability for a modern society. There is no need to counter intermittence as there is with other power technologies that are being developed right now.
8. The global reserves for coal are estimated to be quite large.
The current global reserve for coal is estimated to be about 1 trillion tons. This means we have another 200 years of coal usage at current consumption levels above and beyond what our current stockpiles can currently provide. It is a potential energy resource that can help to develop the developing world, potentially improving the livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest populations.
Here Are the Disadvantages of Coal
1. It is not a renewable resource.
At some point, if we are continuously using coal for our power and energy needs, it will eventually become depleted. As a fossil fuel, there is a finite supply. We may have centuries of stockpiles available in some regions, but at some point, there must be a backup plan in place that can be implemented.
2. Coal contains a high level of carbon dioxide per British Thermal Unit.
Scientists believe that one of the greatest contributors to global warming is carbon dioxide that is manually produced. When comparing all forms of energy and power production that we use today, coal contains the most carbon dioxide for every BTU that is produced. According to the EIA, coal with a carbon content of 78% and a heating value of 14,000 BTU would produce about 204.3 pounds of CO2 per 1 million BTU.
3. Coal power can create high levels of radiation.
A byproduct of burning coal for power, called “coal ash,” produces radiation. This ash then settles around the surrounding areas of the coal plant. According to Scientific American, a coal power plant can produce up to 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant. Coal combustion can also produce mercury, nitrous oxide, heavy metals, and other potential environmental dangers.
4. Coal emissions are linked to health concerns.
People who are exposed to coal and its emissions have an increased risk of experiencing asthma and other air passageway inflammation conditions. Breathing in coal dust or ash is also known to be a cause for lung cancer development over time. A coal mining disease called “Black Lung” can impact total lung capacity, is incurable, and is often fatal. People with Black Lung literally die of suffocation.
5. Even clean coal still has high levels of methane.
Even with the best CCS technologies in place, clean coal still produces carbon dioxide and other environmental contaminants. CCS technologies do not address methane either. Although methane dissipates in the atmosphere rather quickly, it can sink to the bottom of the sea and impact our oceans and marine life for an indeterminate period of time.
6. Coal mines cause relocation and destruction.
Many coal mines use an open-cast method, which causes local animal habitats to be destroyed. Green spaces, waterways, and other spaces are impacted by coal pollution, which can eliminate fields and forests with fast devastation. Fires connected to coal mining create underground burning that can be difficult to remove. Established communities sometimes need to move to avoid the pollution of the coal mines as well, displacing people from their homes.
The advantages and disadvantages of coal require a balance of current power needs and environmental management. We wouldn’t be where we are today without coal. The real question is this: can we get to where we need to be tomorrow if coal were to suddenly disappear?