Coal has played an important role in the development of economies and societies over time.
However, we are at a point of time where the consequences and problems of using coal as an energy source are becoming more and more apparent.
This is a short guide where we outline some of the top reasons why using coal is bad.
Summary – Top Reasons Why Coal Is Bad
Some of the main reasons the use of coal as an energy source might be bad now and heading into the future are:
- Coal is generally (across several different measures) regarded as one of the most dangerous and harmful energy sources
- Air contaminants emitted by the burning of coal contributing to air pollution
- Impact on air pollution on human health
- Cost of air pollution on the health system
- Greenhouse gases emitted by the burning of coal contributing to climate change and global warming
- Burning of coal and associated emissions contributing to acid rain, and other environmental problems (like water and soil pollution)
- Impact of coal mining on the environment, wildlife and local communities
- Coal waste has to be treated and managed properly
- Coal is a finite resource
- Brown coal is inefficient as an energy source
- ‘Clean Coal’ technology isn’t really clean, and has it’s own set of problems
- Thermal coal plants can use a lot of water
Coal Is Generally Considered One Of The Most Dangerous & Harmful Energy Sources
Compared to other energy sources, such as other fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewables, coal is likely one of the most harmful across several measures.
The use of coal can lead to human health problems, increased risk of human health problems, as well as deaths with a likely causal link to coal.
Several factors that can be measured or observed and show a link to coal as a dangerous/harmful energy sources might be:
- Deaths caused by coal per unit of electricity produced (due to air pollution mainly)
- CO2 emissions – total emissions, emissions during burning of the energy source, and emissions over the lifecycle of the energy source
- Harm caused to humans by mining of the energy source
- Harm caused to humans via exposure to, or as a result of dumping of the energy waste by-products
- Operational accidents (such power plant disasters)
- Indirect harm from environmental issues caused by the energy source (such as water pollution, soil contamination etc.)
Burning Coal Pollutes The Air
Burning coal releases various contaminants and toxins into the air that contribute to air pollution.
Air pollution leads to a decrease in the quality of the air.
Different types of coal might release different air contaminants, so, the concentration of each contaminant in the air can differ in different regions.
Wind has the ability to carry air contaminants to nearby areas, so, air pollution in one area can eventually affect another.
Some further information on air pollution and the burning of coal:
- Contaminants and pollutants are emitted into the air [when burning coal] such as sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), mercury, and other chemical byproducts that vary depending on the type of the coal being used
- These emissions have been established to have a negative impact on the environment and human health, contributing to acid rain, lung cancer and cardiovascular disease
- When brown coal is burnt it releases a long list of poisonous heavy metals and toxic chemicals like sulphur dioxide, mercury, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides
- Coal-fired power stations were responsible for 49% of all nitrous dioxide emissions in Australia in 2016-17 and 54% of sulfur dioxide emissions
- A report by EJA … found that the pollution levels of Australian coal-fired power stations would be illegal in the US, Europe and China.
- Currently the NPI monitors level of up to 93 toxins in the air
- [People are saying Aus needs a national air pollution monitoring body, similar to the United States Environmental Protection Agency – to control air pollution]
- Exposure to air pollution can increase the risk of lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, and heart disease. Coal plants in Europe could contribute towards around 22,000 premature deaths – based on their 2010 emissions, according to a study by the University of Stuttgart
- Mercury — which is a highly toxic substance that is hazardous to health and the environment — is released during the burning of lignite (and hard coal), and emitted in the stack gases
- Almost half of the manmade emissions of mercury in the world are from the burning of fossil fuels, with coal in its various guises as the biggest source in Europe.
- PM 10, or particulate matter smaller than 10 microns [is released by power stations]. At this size, particles can enter the lungs and bloodstream. Particles below PM 2.5 pose the greatest threat to health
- [The article by ABC outlines the energy suppliers who were the highest greenhouse gas emitters in 2018]
Impact Of Air Pollution On Human Health
Outdoor air pollution has an impact on human health as we breathe in the air.
Air pollution can lead to a range of health conditions impacting the lungs and cardiovascular system in particular, but also other health issues.
It is estimated that air pollution is the cause of over 4000 deaths a day in China alone (bettermeetsreality.com)
Along with transport emissions, electricity generation emissions are a main contributor to air pollution.
- Decreased lung function, increased respiratory symptoms, and increased cardiovascular and cardiopulmonary disease are all considered to have a “statistically significant” relationship with air pollution
- The OECD estimates that PM2.5 emissions are responsible for about 740 preventable deaths in Australia each year.
Cost Of Air Pollution To The Health System
The cost that air pollution has the health system is estimated into the millions and even billions – depending on the country.
Beyond cost, consider all the extra resources that go into treating and managing air pollution related health problems.
- By world standards … pollutants [from brown coal in Victoria in Australia] are poorly monitored & controlled, and they impose a staggering health cost of up to $800 million every year.
- the cost to Australia from the health impacts of the energy and transport sectors alone could be as high as $6 billion
Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Burning Coal, & Impact On Climate Change/Global Warming
Coal is the dirtiest form of energy generation there is (although some sources indicate natural gas could come close if you include methane leaks at the natural gas mining/extraction stage and not just the burning of natural gas).
Brown coal in particular is an inefficient energy source, and often needs to be burnt into higher quantities to generate the same amount of electricity as a smaller amount of black coal – and this can lead to increased carbon emissions.
Carbon dioxide emissions obviously are thought to be the most likely primary cause of the warming trend we are seeing in the last 100 to 150 years.
Some further information on GHG emissions and the burning of coal…
On a global level:
- Burning coal produces over 14 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year
Globally, annual per year C02 emissions by fuel source, measured in billions of tonnes per year, in 2013, were:
- Solid Fuel (Coal) – 15.15 (Bt)
- Liquid (Oil) – 11.79
- Gas (Natural Gas) – 6.62
- Cement Production – 2.03
- Gas Flaring – 249.36 (Millions of tonnes)
On a country level, particularly in China, coal is responsible for significant carbon emissions (which you can read about in these guides):
- https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/summary-greenhouse-gas-emissions-united-states-past-present-future/ (summary of GHG emissions in the US)
- https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/breakdown-energy-use-production-united-states-now-future/ (energy sources in the US)
- https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/breakdown-energy-use-production-in-china-now-future/ (energy sources in China)
- https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/the-challenges-with-chinas-transition-from-coal-to-natural-gas-renewable-energy/ (China’s current dependence on coal)
- https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/summary-greenhouse-gas-emissions-in-china-past-present-future/ (summary of GHG emissions in China)
Burning Coal Leads To Acid Rain, & Other Environmental Issues
Burning coal emits pollutants into the air.
These pollutants can lead to acid rain, which can in turn pollute water sources and soil.
- When coal is burned the sulfur combines with oxygen and the sulfur oxides are released to the atmosphere. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) becomes sulfur trioxide (SO3) when reacting with oxygen in the air. This reacts with water molecules in the atmosphere to form sulfuric acid, a strong mineral acid. This makes rain acidic.
Coal Mining Can Have Far Reaching Negative Effects
Coal mining can cause a number of environmental issues in the immediate area of mining – land degradation, damage to wildlife and their habitats, and water pollution.
It can also displace local communities.
In some parts of the world, coal mining also has harmful working conditions and can lead to human health problems (such as ‘black lung’).
Coal Waste Has To Be Treated & Managed
Burning coal produces waste such as coal ash.
Coal ash can build up (it makes up up to one fifth of Australia’s waste stream), and contains heavy metals (abc.net.au).
This is a problem if the waste is simply dumped into the environment.
It can be costly to treat, manage and dispose of or even recycle/re-use coal waste in an eco friendly and economical or safe way.
Coal Is A Finite Resource
Current confirmed resources of coal in the ground may only last another century or so.
However much coal we have left, there is a chance it could run out, or become very expensive to continue to mine.
As far as we know, it is a finite resource.
Comparatively, renewable energy is an almost infinite resource.
Brown Coal Is Inefficient As A Power Source
Brown coal is inefficient as an energy source compared to some types of black coal.
This can make it uneconomical to transport, and obviously, more of it is required to burn compared to black coal for the same amount of electricity.
- Lignite is fairly wet compared to hard coal when it is excavated, and it is often burned wet — it can be as much as 75% saturation in some varieties. This makes it inefficient to burn compared to if it was dried out – which means using more fuel to get the same amount of energy, and more mining.
‘Clean Coal’ Technology Isn’t ‘Clean’, & Has It’s Own Problems
There are various forms of clean coal technology available.
However, despite the name, it’s not really clean, and it comes with a list of problems.
Some of the problems include:
- Clean coal technology might be cleaner compared to regular coal power plants, but it’s currently nowhere near as clean as nuclear or renewables
- Billions of dollars have been spent in the past on research and development of clean coal technology. About $50 billion has been put towards the development and deployment of “traditional” clean coal technologies over the past 30 years (wikipedia.org)
- Clean coal technology makes the price of coal electricity more expensive
- Clean coal technology plants have often failed in the construction phase due to various problems (before getting to commissioning and operation stage)
- Several sources have published ‘myth buster’ type articles about the number of claimed ‘clean coal’ plants being developed, built, or in operation, and in reality, there are few that are in operation worldwide that are significantly lowering emissions and pollution while still staying price competitive. For example, the number of high efficiency low emission plants being built or in operation in Japan and China can be exaggerated (tai.org.au)
Thermal Coal Plants Can Use A Lot Of Water
Whether or not water use in a coal plant is a big problem depends on the type of water it uses, and whether that water gets re-used or recycled.
But, the use of freshwater or scarce water resources is obviously an issue going into the future.
What is argued by some is that we have access to far less water intensive energy production in the form of wind and solar voltaic (amongst other energy sources).