Coal is an energy resource that is found underneath our feet. It is a combustible rock, composed of plant mater that has been carbonized. Although surface coal is possible to find, most are located in underground deposits.
Coal is also considered a “fossil fuel.” It earns that name because part of its composition may come from prehistoric vegetation that once grew on our planet. Instead of decaying, under correct conditions, it is interrupted and stores its energy instead.
The “Coal Age” began during the Carboniferous Period, estimated to have started as early as 390 million years ago. Coal quality is therefore determined by the type of vegetation that formed it, how deep it is buried, and what pressure and temperature is present at the site of the deposit.
Coal can be an amazing energy resource. It could also lead to the eventual destruction of humanity. Here are the major advantages and disadvantages of coal to consider.
List of the Advantages of Coal
1. It is one of our most widely available resources.
In the United States, there are enough coal reserves to provide current power levels for about 4 centuries. Globally, British Petroleum estimates that there is enough coal in proven reserves to meet over 150 years of production at current needs. That gives it an availability which is approximately three times greater than oil or natural gas, while still remaining affordable. More than 1 trillion metric tons are believed to be in proven reserves globally right now.
2. It fuels our current infrastructure.
We have known about the combustible nature of coal since the 17th century. Some societies have been burning surface coal for several centuries more. Our modern society was built upon the foundation of energy that coal is able to produce. This resource has gone from fire pits and fireplaces to boilers to power plants. We know how to harvest and use coal quickly and affordably to meet our needs.
3. It is one of the world’s cheapest forms of energy.
Electricity produced by coal power is often less than $0.03 per kilowatt hour. On March 16, 2018, the price per short ton of coal was $63.00. Certain types of coal, such as thermal coal, were trading at a cap price of $40.00 as of March 24, 2018. Compared to the average cost of wood-burning stoves, oil and gas heating or electrical heat, coal is a very affordable resource. For some families, the cost of one month of gas heating equates to 4 tons of coal that could have been purchased.
4. It has the ability to be converted into numerous fuel types.
Many times, coal is combusted in its natural state if the purity levels of the deposit are high enough. Coal can also be transformed into a liquid fuel or a gaseous fuel. When it is consumed in an altered state, the particulate levels that occur are much fewer than when it is consumed in its natural state. Despite the transformation process, the load factor of coal is not changed when it is consumed as a gas or liquid either.
5. It can be competitive with renewable resources.
Although coal energy in its original state is potentially damaging to the environment, clean coal consumption is a different story. Current technologies allow for the capture of up to 90% of the emissions that coal creates when being consumed. The capture of those emissions can become a new energy resource that we use for various purposes as well. The Texas Clean Energy Project, for example, uses captured carbon dioxide to enhance their oil recovery services. Coal energy today is 70% cleaner than it was in 1970.
6. It can produce energy at any time.
Unlike many forms of renewable energy, coal energy can be produced at any time of day and at virtually any demand level. Facilities do not need to store energy if there isn’t enough wind to produce electricity for local demand or if clouds prevent solar energy facilities from maximizing their production. One of the great advantages of coal is that if power is needed, then all one must do is add more coal to get more energy.
7. It is cleaner than it ever has before.
Clean coal technologies may be considered a myth by some, yet the air quality around state-of-the-art coal facilities is better than it has ever been before with this energy option. Older coal-fired power plants emit 90% more pollutants than a modern facility. When combined with clean coal technologies and recycling options, much of the waste that is produced by the combustion of coal can either be eliminated or used in other ways.
8. It is used to create products that we use every day.
For the steel products that societies around the world use every day, the World Coal Association states that 74% of the supply is produced through the use of coal. Coking coal is one of the primary ingredients in the steel-making process. In 2017, there was more than 1.6 billion tons of steel produced for various needs. Although coal isn’t technically required for steel creation, its high carbon content and overall affordability make it a first-choice option for many manufacturers.
9. It is an essential ingredient in important specialist products.
Coal might be used for power and to create steel, yet these are not its only uses. Coal is an essential ingredient in the creation of activated carbon filters. These filters can be used to purify the air, purify water, and they’re also part of the equipment used for kidney dialysis treatments. Coal is also part of carbon fiber technologies, which can be found in everything from bicycles to construction equipment. Coal also produces silicones and silanes, which we use in shampoo, cosmetics, and lubricants.
10. It can be a lifesaver.
When coal is transformed into activated charcoal, it becomes a very porous substance that is good at absorbing numerous substances. It is so effective, in fact, that emergency rooms around the world often keep a stock of it because it can absorb poisons, chemicals, drugs, and other potentially hazardous items to human health. It is easy enough to make as well, with several guides available online to help people create their own activated carbon from coal.
11. It can last indefinitely if it is stored properly.
Coal can lose some of its volatility over time if it is not stored properly. It must be kept dry to be able to last indefinitely. Many people store coal in buckets, which is not ideal, because it will interact with the moisture in the environment. It must be stored within a sealed drum or container to avoid interaction with water molecules to prolong its storage life.
12. It offers a high load factor.
Coal is one of the few energy resources we have which offers a load factor that is above 80%. That means we are able to receive over 80% of the potential energy that the coal contains. It is for this reason that coal remains a popular fuel resource. When compared to renewable energy solutions, the load factor of coal is more than double that of some solar or wind options.
List of the Disadvantages of Coal
1. It offers a huge damage potential to the environment.
When coal is consumed, it releases particulates into the atmosphere. It also releases a high volume of carbon dioxide. When combined, these items can increase the reflection effect of sunlight when it hits our planet, retaining its warmth instead of allowing it to dissipate. The particulates then fall on the surface, potentially contaminating it, in areas of high coal usage. Coal also requires mining to access, which can strip the planet of needed resources, put groundwater at risk, and add even more emissions to the atmosphere.
2. It destroys habitats.
Various mining processes are used to harvest coal from its underground deposits, but only two methods are primarily used: deep mining (underground) and surface mining (opencast). More than 7.2 billion tons of hard coal are currently produced annually through these mining methods. Large pits form on surface mines, which eliminate the ability of the natural environment to provide habitats for local wildlife. Coal mining will always displace someone or something when it occurs.
3. It is a product that is primarily used domestically.
The top 10 countries that produce coal in the world today have access to more than 80% of the overall coal supply. Just 15% of hard coal production, according to the World Coal Association, is exported to the rest of the world. That means China, India, the United States, and Australia consume more than 50% of the coal that is used for electricity every year for their own domestic needs.
4. It may be abundant now, but coal is not replaceable.
We cannot replace coal once it has been harvested from its deposit. The process required to form coal involves up to 10 times the amount of plant debris, in volume, to produce coal. That means it is not cost effective or practical to replicate coal production within a laboratory environment. If consumption levels of coal continue to increase, it may be less than a century before we consume the world’s known reserves of this power source.
5. It produces life-threatening side effects when combusted.
Coal releases high levels of carbon dioxide because it has trapped the energy of decaying plant matter in deposits under the ground that would have normally been released. Depending upon the quality of the deposit and the amount of coal combusted, carbon dioxide levels can be highly concentrated upon its release. Storage technologies can concentrate this gas as well. Not only would it be dangerous if inhaled, concentrated carbon dioxide is also highly acidic. It could taint groundwater resources, soil resources, and destroy other components of our natural infrastructure.
6. It releases more than carbon dioxide into the environment.
With coal, carbon dioxide is the primary threat to the atmosphere and environment when considering emissions. That is not, however, the only emissions that are generated by coal consumption. Even the safest coal mining processes can contaminate a region with mercury, sulfur, selenium, and arsenic. When combusted, coal releases sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide.
7. It offers life-threatening consequences to miners.
A disease called coalworker’s pneumoconiosis, often called “Black Lung Disease,” is highly prevalent in those who work in coal mines. This disease occurs when coal dust is inhaled over a prolonged period. Even when personal protective equipment is worn and all regulations on dust exposure are followed, there is still a risk of this disease occurring. Rates have been rising, according to Popular Science, especially in Kentucky and Virginia, since the early 2000s, with miners in their 40s and 50s having it be more common.
8. It can produce radiation.
Consuming coal creates an ash. When all the impurities are burned away, this coal ash, according to Scientific American, is more radioactive than nuclear waste. Even the “fly ash,” or the particulates that are released into the atmosphere when coal is consumed, contains 100 times more radiation than what a nuclear power plant would produce at equal energy levels. That is because coal contains uranium or thorium, which concentrates up to 10 times its original levels through the combustion process.
9. It produces huge levels of waste.
In a 10-year period, the coal-fired power plants in the United States produce about 1.2 billion short tons of coal waste every year. Although there is energy potential within this waste, just 40% of it is ever recycled. That means each year, the U.S. must manage about 80 million short tons of coal waste somehow. For most facilities, that means depositing the waste into a landfill or a containment pond.
10. It is an “uninvestable” resource.
Most energy companies that are operating in countries that have coal resources are not building new coal-fired plants, even with clean coal technologies. They are considered a risky investment because investment funds, banks, and other financial institutions will not back their construction. That means the public would be forced to subsidize its construction, to the tune of several billion dollars each year. With current carbon limits in place, it would cost as much as $150 per kilowatt hour to install a new facility.
11. It can produce acid rain around combustion facilities.
It is proven that the combustion of coal releases sulfur oxides into the atmosphere. When these oxides reach a high enough altitude, the transform from sulfur dioxide to sulfur trioxide as they interact with oxygen molecules. Sulfur trioxide then reacts with the water molecules that are found in the atmosphere, forming sulfuric acid. Should the water molecules form into clouds that disperse rain, then an acid rain would be created. Around coal-fired plants, this acid rain can be as acidic as vinegar.
12. It can be found in food products.
Activated charcoal has been a popular ingredient addition in a number of different food products since 2015. It can be found in supplements and pressed juices as well. It has even made its way into toothpaste. The problem with this ingredient is that it has no control over which substances it absorbs. If consumed, it may remove vital nutrients as the body processes it, then removes it.
I recommend that you read these 24 amazing fossil fuel consumption statistics that support some of these pros and cons.
The major advantages and disadvantages of coal show us that with care and innovation, we can continue to improve the safe use of this energy resource. It is abundant, affordable, and uses proven technologies. It is also primarily available to a privileged few and will always offer a threat of environmental contamination.