A combustible, sedimentary rock, coal is one of the main sources of energy production around the world. Coal energy is generated when the fossil fuel is burned to generate heat and produce steam, which spins turbine generators that produce electricity. Along with the steam engine, coal energy helped stimulate and sustain the Industrial Revolution. Accounting for approximately 40 percent of energy production in the United States, coal has benefits as well as shortcomings.
Benefits of Coal
Coal energy has three main advantages when compared to other sources of renewable and nonrenewable energy. It is abundant, relatively inexpensive and requires lower capital expenditures to construct a coal-burning power plant. Found in more than 70 countries around the world, coal reserves are estimated at close to 1 trillion tons. The reserves are expected to outlast oil and gas. This creates long-term stable prices. The largest concentrations of coal are also in major industrialized countries like Russia, China, India and the United States.
Coal-powered energy facilities are less expensive to build and can operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Not dependent on sun or wind, coal plants can produce energy around-the-clock. This makes coal energy appealing to less developed countries as a way to generate abundant, inexpensive energy for their growing economies. These factors have dramatically increased the use of coal power around the world.
Through a liquefaction process, coal can be converted into liquid hydrocarbons and synthetic gas that burn cleaner and produce fewer harmful emissions. Clean coal technologies are being developed to trap carbon emissions before they enter the environment in order to limit the damaging effects of burning this fossil fuel.
Drawbacks of Using Coal
While coal has the potential to be a tremendous source of energy, it does have several drawbacks. The major disadvantage of coal is its negative impact on the environment. Coal-burning energy plants are a major source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to carbon monoxide and heavy metals like mercury, the use of coal releases sulfur dioxide, a harmful substance linked to acid rain.
The extraction process can be detrimental to the environment as well as workers. Mining coal destroys habitats and has other negative effects on the environment like water pollution from the runoff. Coal mining also causes a large number of injuries and deaths each year. Fires in connected mine shafts are difficult to locate and extinguish. The combustion and the hollowed-out earth that destabilize the ground make some areas uninhabitable, which forces people to relocate.
While the availability and affordability of coal are advantageous, these factors must be considered in light of the negative impact on the environment resulting from its use. The future of coal will depend upon the use of low-sulfur varieties, advances in clean coal technologies and sourcing of lower-cost alternatives. While the disadvantages will lower demand for coal energy over time, the lack of a cost-effective alternative should keep this fossil fuel in demand for many years to come.