Let’s get something out the way first – this article does not support nor condemn the use of coal going forward.
Rather, it simply outlines why and how coal has been and continues to be (but not necessarily in the future – that is a different discussion altogether) to be important to society in various ways in the present.
Summary – Why/How Coal Is Important To Society
- In the past, coal and other fossil fuels (like oil and natural gas) have been responsible for a lot of the industrial and economic growth we have seen in many developed countries (By 1900, coal consumption had increased significantly, accounting for almost half of global energy – ourworldindata.org)
- In the present, coal is still heavily used as an energy source in many of these countries
- Coal provides jobs, incomes and economic growth, among other benefits such as providing a backup or complementary power source to renewables, and providing a cheap/affordable form of electricity where required. It can also help countries gain more energy independence (from other countries) where required. Major power grids around the world are currently set up with their infrastructure to receive energy from fossil fuel energy
- We even use coal and coking coal in steel production (and use coal as an ingredient in other products we use in society)
- Where countries in the past haven’t had the technology or logistical requirements to move to renewables or nuclear, coal has been a good option. Also, where countries want more energy independence over relying on foreign energy (such as natural gas from Russia), coal can be useful
- The negatives and trade offs of coal are numerous though (it would be irresponsible to publish this article without mentioning them) – with some of the major ones being the social and environmental impact of coal mining, and air pollution (via air contaminants and toxins) and greenhouse gas emissions caused by the combustion/burning of coal. Global warming has it’s own set of consequences, but air pollution (when air quality reaches a certain level or specific toxins reach a certain concentration) leads to human health problems (with the lungs and heart) and even environmental problems like acid rain. Coal waste (coal ash) also need to be treated and managed, or the heavy metals can do damage to soil and water (and eventually wildlife) if it’s simply dumped or left untreated/uncontained
- Even though coal provides many economic benefits, many people argue the drawbacks and damage it does as an energy source far outweigh those benefits, and we should move to cleaner forms of energy
How Much Power & Electricity Coal Provides Worldwide
- Some 27% of primary energy needs are met by coal and 38% of electricity is generated from coal.
- About 70% of world steel production depends on coal feedstock.
- Coal is the world’s most abundant and widely distributed fossil fuel source.
- [In 2017, oil, coal and natural gas lead worldwide primary energy consumption, providing 53, 43, and 35 thousand TWh respectively. The next closest is traditional biofuels at 10 thousand TWh]
How Much Power Coal Provides In The United States
The three major fossil fuels—petroleum, natural gas, and coal—combined accounted for about 77.6% of the U.S. primary energy production in 2017:
- Natural gas—31.8%
- Petroleum (crude oil and natural gas plant liquids)—28.0%
- Renewable energy—12.7%
- Nuclear electric power—9.6%
– eia.gov, bettermeetsreality.com
How Much Power Coal Provides In China
- In 2016, coal made up 62 percent of China’s energy use. Since 2011, China has consumed more coal than the rest of the world combined.
- In 2015, most of China’s energy and coal use came from the industrial sector, with 67.9 percent of the country’s energy use and 54.2 percent of its coal use due to manufacturing, agriculture, and construction.
- An additional 41.8 percent of China’s coal consumption came from power production activities.
– chinapower.csis.org, bettermeetsreality.com
How Much Power Coal Provides In Other Countries
Just as one example, India’s primary energy consumption was made up of more than 50% coal in 2018.
Pros & Cons Of Coal Energy
As mentioned above, some of the major benefits of coal energy are cheap/affordable electricity, being able to develop economies and industrial sectors, provision of jobs at coal mines and at coal power plants, and of course provision of incomes.
One of the other uncommonly mentioned pros of using coal energy is that it helps countries with energy independence:
- like renewables, [coal has the advantage of] being a domestic source of energy, particularly appealing for Germany and Poland, both keen to cut their dependence on Russian gas.