Coal. It is the perfect example of a life-changing discovery turning into a nightmare.
The central role played by coal in triggering the Industrial Revolution is a well-known fact. As we discovered numerous uses for it and ways to tap into the potential of coal, our lives changed beyond recognition. We, humans, started enjoying a lifestyle that was unimaginable before. We hailed coal energy as the savior.
It started coming apart in the latter half of the 20th century. Though there were a few isolated warnings about the harmful effects of coal earlier, it gained momentum in the 1950s. By the early 1970s, we confirmed the truth about coal – that it is not the hero that we thought it is but rather a villain creating more harm than good.
Unfortunately, our plans to discard coal didn’t succeed. Our scientists came up with various alternative energy sources. None of them caught on well enough to displace coal from its high pedestal. The vice grip that coal and other fossil fuels have on us is something we never accounted for. Shaking it off has been harder than expected.
Even today, the struggle is ongoing. Governments across the world are trying desperately to figure out ways to bring down the use of fossil fuels without setting us back in any way. Renewable energy sources like solar energy and wind power are being promoted as replacements for coal.
We have found success to some extent but not enough to bring down our dependence on coal. This article attempts to lay out the pros and cons of coal to get a clear understanding of why we need to find a replacement. Here you will also find reasons why we are facing such an uphill task with this.
Coal: A brief history
It is believed that coal has been used as a source of energy since the caveman days. The earliest historical accounts of surface mining of coal and its domestic use are documented in ancient China more than 5 millenniums ago. We can find documentary evidence of the use of coal for metalworks by Greeks in the 4th century BC.
In the Americas, the first evidence of the use of coal was by the Aztecs. In Britain, the Romans began mining coal for heating needs by the 2nd century AD. Even after the Romans left Britain, the use of coal and its trade continued. Back in the United States, there is evidence of Hopi Indians using coal to make pottery.
The history of coal energy along with that of the human race took a sharp turn in the 18th century in Britain when scientists developed ways to convert coal into coke, a fuel that is hotter and burned cleaner than coal. This set off the Industrial Revolution.
While the invention of coke paved the way for the Industrial Revolution, it worked the other way as well. The Industrial Revolution played a huge role in expanding the use of coal. James Watt invented the steam engine that was powered by coal. More and more machines were discovered that took over the work earlier done by humans and animals.
By the early 19th century, the Industrial Revolution reached the shores of the United States. Steam-powered ships and railroads became common forms of transportation. During the Civil War, coal and coke were used in weapons manufacture.
The use of coal to produce electricity came much later at the turn of the 20th century. By the mid-20th century, electricity and the use of coal in its generation had taken deep roots. In the 1950s and 1960s, scientists began raising the red flag about the harmful effects of coal usage.
Why are we still using coal?
Today, we are very much aware of the detrimental effects of burning fossil fuels like coal. However, we continue to use them in power plants and a few industries like steel, cement, and chemicals. Why are we finding it so hard to discard coal?
The simple answer is easy availability and existing infrastructure. Coal is an abundant resource worldwide. Here are a few more reasons for its continued use despite experiencing first-hand its devastating effect on climate.
- Coal is the cheapest energy source.
- It is a reliable and stable source of energy.
- Its local availability ensures self-reliance on energy.
- It can be used with the existing infrastructure.
- The coal industry is well-established and provides jobs to millions.
- The lack of a reliable alternative is helping coal use.
How is coal mined?
Depending on the presence of coal deposits, the method of mining is chosen. When coal seams or deposits are near the surface of the earth, surface or opencast mining is the best option. On the other hand, to extract deeper coal deposits, underground mining is the only choice.
Opencast mining can be used to extract almost 90% of the coal deposits. For this, the overburden of rock and soil is broken open with explosives and removed to expose the coal seam underneath. The coal deposit is then drilled, fractured, and mined in strips. The mined coal is transported using trucks or conveyor belts.
Underground mining is carried out using two methods – room-and-pillar and longwall mining. When the coal deposit is flat-lying, the room and pillar method is the best choice. In this method, “rooms” are cut into the coal deposit, leaving “pillars” to support the roof of the structure. Pillars may constitute almost 40% of the coal deposit. Sometimes these are recovered later from the mine.
Longwall mining is ideal when the coal deposit appears as a long wall and coal can be removed in a single slice. Mechanical shearers are used to extract coal while hydraulic support holds up the roof temporarily. This method allows the extraction of 75% of coal.
Pros and cons of using coal
It is abundant, reliable, and easy to use. We, humans, have been using coal as an energy source since time immemorial. Coal has been our primary source of energy for a long time.
It is only in the last 70 years that we became aware of the harmful effects of burning coal. After the Industrial Revolution, the use of coal skyrocketed and this worsened the situation. A section of scientists believes that as long as the use of coal remains under check, we can continue to use it without much damage to the environment.
Here is a look at the benefits of coal and its potential drawbacks.
What are the advantages of coal energy?
1. Abundant supply
One of the factors making it so hard for us to reduce coal use is its easy availability. Coal boasts of huge reserves worldwide. With the present consumption rate, it is estimated that the coal reserves will last us for the next 400-500 years.
2. Reliable energy source
Unlike most renewable energy sources like wind energy and solar, coal is not an intermittent resource. It is reliable and available at all times. Once mined, you can use it at any time you need it. The availability of coal is not affected by weather or seasonal variations.
3. Doesn’t need backup
As coal is a dependable and predictable resource, there is no need to have another more reliable energy source to act as backup. Energy sources that are available intermittently like solar and wind need a backup to fill up the gap when it is nighttime or when the wind is not blowing.
4. Cheapest energy source
Among all the energy sources, both renewable and nonrenewable, coal produces the cheapest electricity. Though renewable sources like solar and wind are free resources, the cost of generating electricity depends on other factors as well. This includes the cost of equipment, operational and maintenance costs, the cost of land space for setting up a power plant, and the cost of backup power.
5. Unaffected by weather variations
The supply of coal is rarely influenced by weather conditions, while renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydropower are heavily affected. Seasonal fluctuations also do not influence the generation of electricity in a coal-powered plant.
6. Versatile and flexible
We have been using coal for such a long time that we have found numerous uses for it. Generating electricity from coal is a fairly recent application. Coal and its by-products are used in almost all spheres of our lives. Activated carbon is used directly in filters and purifiers. Coal tar, a by-product of coal, is used in the manufacture of industrial and everyday products.
7. Easier to combine with other energy sources
Coal can be used along with other energy sources. For example, it is easy to combine biomass energy with coal for electricity generation. This helps in reducing the harmful effects of coal and at the same time increases the reliability of biomass energy. When coal is ultimately phased out, the same facility can continue to function.
8. Provides jobs to millions
The coal industry is well-established and has been around for centuries. As it is a labor-intensive industry, it provides more jobs than any other energy source. Beginning from miners, truck drivers, loaders, and power plant operators, entire regions survive on coal and coal-related industries.
9. Less reliance on oil
More coal usage converts to less dependence on oil. This is important as most countries including the United States depend on oil imports to meet their oil demand. While coal is mostly locally sourced, the use of coal ensures energy independence. As electric cars are gaining in popularity, coal can replace oil even in transportation.
10. Easy storage
Being solid and compact, it is easy to transport and store coal. This makes it possible to mine coal when it is available and store it for later use. This helps in making coal a reliable and dependable energy source. This is where most renewable energy sources fail to match up with coal, making it hard for us to switch to cleaner forms of energy.
11. Smokeless varieties
Coal is considered a villain because of its carbon emissions and high levels of pollution. However, this drawback can be overcome by choosing smokeless alternatives like factory-manufactured smokeless coal or naturally-occurring anthracite. With these options, you can continue to use coal without its harmful side effects.
12. Convertible to suit application
Coal is usually used in its original mined state. If needed, it can be converted into liquid or gaseous form for convenience of application. Its versatility and flexibility make coal superior to other energy sources, especially renewables.
13. Minimal wastage
When coal is burned for energy, it burns completely with next to no wastage. Moreover, the by-products of the process are usable in other applications. Years of improving and perfecting the technology has made this possible.
14. Lowest capital investment
As coal and coal burning technology have been around for a while now, we have the infrastructure already in place for use of coal. This is where new energy sources face an uphill task. The monumental capital investment required for their use is one of the prime factors for the continual use of coal.
15. Better control over output
It is easier to raise or lower the level of electricity production with coal as the demand goes up and down. Even the heat output from a coal-powered unit is easily controllable. Again, renewable energy sources fail to keep up with coal on these aspects. In commercial scale production, this can make a huge difference.
16. Safer and less prone to accidents
All energy sources when put to use on a large scale have their own fair share of risks and hazards. Among all the energy sources, coal remains the safest with the least amount of risk attached to it. From mining until its use in the industries, safety standards for coal have improved over years.
17. Uncomplicated technology
Unlike other energy sources including renewables and nuclear power, deriving energy from coal, whether on a large or small scale, is fairly simple. All you need to do is burn it to release the energy trapped in it. Easier, cheaper, and requiring less expertise, coal continues to be in use because of its simplicity and ease of use.
18. Risk factors are easier to address
As the technology associated with coal is simple and easy to understand, the complications and risks linked to its use are easier to address and mitigate. Controlling any potential harmful aftereffects of burning coal is much easier and simpler than a nuclear disaster or dam breach. And the cost of addressing the concern is much lower for coal as the technology is simple.
What are the disadvantages of coal energy?
This is one of the main concerns with coal. The coal deposits, though abundant and enough to last us for a few centuries, are finite. It takes millions of years and exact geological conditions for the formation of coal. Our rate of use of coal is far greater than its formation and this makes coal a nonrenewable resource. In simple terms, this means that we will run out of coal eventually.
2. Carbon emissions
The most recent concern about coal is the amount of greenhouse gasses it emits when burned. Burning of coal accounts for almost 65% of greenhouse gas emissions. Increase in greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere traps in the heat, leading to global warming and ultimately climate change. Acid rain is another fallout. As we witness severe and unpredictable weather worldwide in recent years, the voice against coal use is getting louder.
3. Air pollution
Besides the high levels of carbon dioxide emissions, coal burning also contributes substantially to the presence of particulate matter in the air. This includes tiny particles of fly ash and dust. Particulate pollution leads to the formation of smoke and soot in the atmosphere, besides the presence of tiny particles of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and ammonia. Particulates emitted by coal-fired power plants contribute to haze, smog, lung diseases, and respiratory illnesses.
4. Destruction of natural habitats
Coal mining results in the caving in of ground on most instances. As we dig and remove coal deposits from the surface or underground, the plant and animal life in the area are severely affected and completely destroyed on most occasions. Biodiversity and ecosystem are extremely impacted.
5. Destruction of pristine lands
Often coal deposits are located in remote areas, rich in plants and wildlife. Establishment of coal mines is bound to destroy everything in the vicinity. Besides this, an entire network of roads and railways need to be built to connect coal mines to nearby processing plants for easy transportation. This further damages the area.
6. Environmental impacts
Coal mining can end up polluting the groundwater sources. Fire outbreaks are common in and around coal mines. This can lead to more pollution and affect the health and safety of the people in the vicinity. Though the landscape may be restored after coal is fully extracted, it may take a long time and may never go back to the original state. The plants and animals lost will remain lost.
7. Health impacts
Miners and people living near coal mines and coal-fired power plants risk direct and long-term exposure to coal. It is all the riskier for those who are exposed to concentrated carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal. The health issues include asthma, pneumonia, suffocation, respiratory ailments, oxygen deprivation, lung cancer, and premature death. In less severe instances, chronic fatigue and sleeplessness are common symptoms.
8. Threat from radiation
Besides carbon emissions and air pollution, a lesser-known threat from coal combustion is radiation. These radiations are considered carcinogenic, meaning, it can trigger cell mutations leading to cancer. Though the threat of radiation is nowhere close to the radiation level posed by nuclear plants, it still is a possibility that needs to be dealt with caution. Using safety gear can alleviate the threat to a large extent.
9. Relocation of townships
Often coal deposits are discovered in areas where people are already living. To facilitate coal mining, entire townships need to be moved and relocated. Even after coal mining is complete and the land restored, it will never be the same again. The landscape would have changed, the fertility of the soil damaged, groundwater polluted, and the ecology damaged beyond repair.
There is no denying that coal is a cheap and reliable source of energy that has helped us lead a lifestyle unheard of and unimaginable before its discovery. We, humans, have definitely “progressed”. But the question is at what cost?
We indeed have sufficient coal deposits to run the show for another 400 or 500 years. However, it remains to be seen whether the earth and the environment can survive its harmful effects for that long. Climate change and global warming have been getting worse with each passing year. It is calculated that the melting ice caps will drown the low-lying coastal areas worldwide in a few years from now.
The choice is ours – do we want to continue the use of coal and other fossil fuels and suffer the consequences or is it better to scale down their usage and search for an equally good, versatile, and eco-friendly alternative. Each one of us has to make this choice as our collective survival and the survival of our beautiful planet is at stake here.