As part of assessing the best energy sources for the future, we are looking at the pros and cons of these different energy sources.
This is our guide on the Pros & Cons Of Coal Energy.
Summary – Coal Energy Pros & Cons
- Cost effective
- Supplies left on some estimates stretch into hundreds of years
- Infrastructure for coal is currently in place
- Not an intermittent power source
- Has good power density
- There is work being done to capture contaminants and emissions from coal
- Coal can be converted into different types of fuel
- Coal plants are cheaper than gas or nuclear plants
- Provides many jobs in countries like China
- Although cheap, coal is heavily subsidised
- Not a green form of energy > produces emissions when burning
- Is finite – not a renewable form of energy
- Contributes to outdoor air pollution
- Coal supplies at plants need to be topped up
- Coal mining can be very destructive environmentally and to local communities
- Coal burning can produce radiation
- Carbon capture can be uncertain
- Carbon capture can be expensive
Coal is cheap, widely available, has infrastructure already in place and has decent supplies still left
However, the carbon dioxide it emits during combustion is a huge problem, and mining creates damage and harmful effects (although new more eco friendly coal plants have been designed and constructed in recent years)
Because of climate change and air pollution, countries like China are trying to transition to other forms of energy like natural gas, and renewables such as solar and wind
Coal may work for us right now and major economies may depend on it, but transitioning to cleaner and less destructive energy sources in the short term and medium-long term seems like a smart idea
*Note – the above pros and cons are broad generalisations. Obviously there are different variables to each specific energy project that impact the final pros and cons (like new technology that reduces emissions for coal power plants just as one of many examples). Each energy project and situation (in different countries and cities) should be analysed individually. Having said that, some broad principles and patterns about the pros and cons of different energy sources tend to stay consistent too.
What Is Coal Energy
Coal energy or coal power refers to the combustion of a fossil fuel called coal for heat generation that is used to spin a turbine to produce electricity.
Coal is a combustible sedimentary rock having a black or brownish-black color, which can be found in rock strata (layers of sedimentary rock, soil or igneous rock that was formed at the surface of the planet), in veins also called coal seams or layers of underground rock called coal beds.
Coal consists of mostly carbon along with other elements such as hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur and oxygen.
Coal Energy Pros
- Cost Effective – usually one of the cheaper forms of energy because of how widely available it is.
- Good Supply Left – The current stockpiles of coal can provide the world with more than a century of energy, while US-based coal reserves could last over 400 years. Beyond the stockpiles of coal that have already been mined, there is an estimated global reserve of this fossil fuel that could be more than 1 trillion tons.
- Infrastructure Is Currently In Place For Coal – all existing infrastructure is suitable for coal energy delivery.
- Coal Power Is Not Intermittent – unlike solar or wind which can be intermittent on days that aren’t sunny or non windy days, coal can be burnt 24/7, and can even be burnt at higher amounts in times of need.
- Work Is Being Done To Capture Carbon Emissions – As of 2017, coal energy is responsible for about 50% of the electricity being generated in the United States. Thanks to clean coal technologies, many of the emissions which are released during the combustion phase of this resource can be captured. This limits the potential damage to the environment and atmosphere while maintaining current infrastructures.
- Coal Can Be Converted Into Different Types Of Fuel – Coal can be converted into a gas or into a liquid. When this process has been completed, coal energy burns cleaner than it would if the natural resource were being burned in its natural state.
- Coal Power Plants Are Cheaper Than Gas Or Nuclear Plants – Energy sector specialists GHD and Solstice Development Services have estimated that building a 1,000 MW ultra-supercritical coal-power plant (USC) would cost about $2.2 billion and the electricity produced would cost about $40-$78 per MWh, while the electricity produced by a gas-fired power plant would cost between $69 and $115 per MWh.
– vittana.org, alternative-energies.net
Coal Energy Cons
- Although Coal Is Cheap, It Has Been Heavily Subsidised and Protected – coal, natural gas and oil have been more heavily subsidised and protected in most countries compared to renewable and cleaner or less destructive forms of energy. This places an asterisk over the price of coal
- Not A Green/Clean Form Of Energy – carbon dioxide greenhouse gas is emitted when coal is combusted for fuel. Additional emissions are released through the mining and delivery processes. Coal definitely DOES NOT line up with the global goal to minimise climate change and global warming.
- Not Renewable – supplies are finite and will eventually run out, at which point we have to consider other forms of energy.
- Coal Mining Can Be Destructive To The Environment – potential pollution of groundwater tables and the removal of trees. There is also the added danger of having a fire begin in a coal mine. Wildlife can be affected, as well as there being permanent land erosion and degradation. Ontop of this, coal mining can emit methane (a GHG 20 to 25 stronger than C02)
- Coal Mining Can Also Be Harmful In Other Ways – Byproducts of coal mining including arsenic, sulfur dioxide, selenium, and mercury. Miners who inhale coal dust can develop a condition that is called Black Lung Disease, which can make it difficult for the person to breath and reduce their overall quality of life. In total, several million tons of unusable waste are produced annually because of coal energy and that stuff needs to go somewhere.
- Coal Burning Produces Radiation – Coal energy, when burned at a coal-fired power plant, produces more outward radiation exposure than a nuclear power plant would produce. The emissions are also linked to increased levels of asthma and lung cancer for local populations compared to other forms of energy.
- Carbon Capture Can Be Uncertain – the full risks of capturing carbon from coal and putting it in the ground are still not known.
- Carbon Capture Can Be Expensive – the technologies to convert current coal-fired plants to clean coal could greatly increase the energy costs for individual consumers. LiveScience estimates that some carbon capture and storage technologies could increase the price of energy by up to 75%.
– vittana.org, energyinformative.org