This is Part 2 of a paper written about the projected US Energy profile in the year 2050. In this chapter, we take a look at Coal as an energy source and fuel for the future. 

History of Coal Energy

Coal mining in the United States began in the 1700s and triggered the beginning of a new era. As the Western world was confronted with unprecedented energy demands throughout the Industrial revolution, coal emerged as a cheap, effective resource that burned hotter than traditionally used biomass.

While coal had limited use beforehand, the invention of the steam engine revolutionized resource demand. For the first time, the burning of coal could power machines. Coal was responsible for completely revolutionizing industry worldwide, powering transportation and factories. Beginning in 1880, and continuing to the present, the most significant role of coal power has been in the generation of electricity.

Current role of Coal 

Today, approximately 56% of yearly energy generation is from coal, making it the nation’s most significant source of electricity.  In the United States, politicians are attracted to coal as an energy resource, because of the nation’s seemingly limitless supply of coal resources. Assuming the United States continues its current consumption of coal, the nation has a 300-year supply. In fact, while resources such as oil and natural gas must be imported from other nations, every year the United States actually exports substantial coal resources to other nations. In 2008, the United States exported almost 74 million tons of coal. Across the globe, many nations use an even greater amount of coal than the United States. Particularly, in recent years, the rapid growth of India and China’s energy consumption has been fueled by significant coal combustion, along with significant pollution.

How does coal generate energy?

Coal was formed millions of years ago, at the time of the earth’s formation, and is essentially biomass that has been enriched underground. When coal is burned, it generates a significant amount of heat at very high temperatures. This heat is generated in a pressurized container and applied to water which spins a turbine to generate an electric current. Through this process, the Rankine Cycle, the combustion of coal is able to generate a significant amount of electricity.

Clean Coal Technologies

The future of coal can be found in new technologies that can successfully capture carbon emissions.  Only through these so called “clean coal” technologies can coal remain an environmentally viable resource. Applied to a modern, conventional power plant, some studies show that carbon capture technology can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80-90%.Carbon capture technology is still in the infant stages, and the energy costs of capturing and storing carbon are often 30-40% higher than a conventional plant. In addition, there has been little to no testing of this technology; only time will tell if this is truly a feasible option.

Coal Environmental Issues

While the United States has strong domestic coal reserves that can help achieve energy security, there are still many environmental obstacles to the success of increased coal production.

First and foremost, the combustion of coal carries devastating environmental implications. The burning of coal causes smog, soot, and acid rain. During the Industrial Revolution, the abundance of industrial combustion created permanent smog in many different American cities. This smog only began to disappear with increased environmental standards and the movement to natural gas and oil. However, in many developing countries across the globe, cities such as Beijing and Mumbai are devastated by coal pollution.

In recent years, much public attention has been brought to the impact of carbon emissions. Coal has a much higher carbon ratio than other fossil fuels and emits much greater carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur into the atmosphere. While this causes environmental disasters such as acid rain and water pollution, it is even more significant in its effect on the ozone layer and global warming. When looking towards the future of coal, it is impossible to overlook its detrimental impact on the environment.

Alongside environmental issues, safety has historically been a significant issue confronting coal power, particularly with regard to coal mining. In developing countries, such as China, accidents are still very widespread. However, in the United States, modern technology has significantly reduced the rate of accidents and, on average, only 30 mining death occur per year, versus 8000 in China. While there are clearly some exceptions, such as the recent mining tragedy in West Virginia, coal mining in the United States does not have any significant safety issues. 

Economics of Coal

In addition to its relative abundance, coal an extremely cheap resource. Although the creation of a coal plant requires significant upfront costs, the total cost of coal is among the cheapest of all energy sources (Morgan). From the perspective of energy independence, coal is a cheap, domestic, resource that can replace dependence on foreign markets.

Energy Security

The most significant benefit of using coal is with regard to energy security. A greater emphasis on domestic coal production and consumption would decrease dependency on foreign resources, reduce market volatility, and boost the American economy. Coal is an important, indigenous resource that invariably must be an important part of any energy mix in the near future.

Political Viability

The political debate over coal power centers on the conflict between environmental issues and the importance of energy security. Although coal has detrimental effects on the environment, it is a domestic resource that the US has in large supply. Ultimately, any successful policy regarding coal must balance between these two competing ideals.