Coal is a sedimentary organic rock that is highly combustible. It is composed mainly of carbon oxygen and hydrogen, making it a primary source of energy. Coal formation began 360 million to 290 million years ago, a period that yielded a wide variety of coal, which is why the quality of coal deposits are determined by the length of time that they have been formed and how deeply they are buried.
Despite the bad rep, especially coming from environmentalists, coal has many applications and not just in electricity generation, which is why it remains a vital product all over the world. What is used to generate power is known as a steam coal or thermal coal, while the coking coal or metallurgical coal is used mainly in producing steel. If coal mining were to stop, a lot of industries will be affected, including paper manufacturers, pharmaceutical firms, and alumina refineries. This is why it is highly unlikely that coal production will completely stop, unless it totally runs out, which would be a long time coming. Unfortunately, coal has negative impacts, which leave the world torn between two ends of the spectrum.
List of Advantages of Coal
1. Primary energy source.
Coal supplies around 30% of the primary energy needs all over the world, generating 40% of electricity. Some of the biggest producers are China, USA, India and Indonesia. Compared with oil and natural gas, it is one of the most abundant sources of energy. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), coal reserves in the United States alone can last up to approximately 190 for years, while the rest of the world have at least another 300 years. So even if it is considered non-renewable, it is unlikely that there will be a shortage of coal any time soon.
2. Coal mining jobs.
According to EIA, there are an estimated 600 coal generating facilities, 1,100 manufacturing facilities, and 52 coal mines in the United States alone. The mines alone employ about 134,000 people, contributing to high employment, and over the next 10 years, 50,000 new employees will be needed to replace workers who will be retiring. Because the demand for coal continues to rise, employment will also increase, which means there will be no job shortage in the coal industry.
Just recently, Donkin coal mine, an American company in Cape Breton, has just started hiring a new work force. Several positions needed to be filled include underground machine operators, mechanical/electrical mine technicians and foremen, all of which have a pay rate of between $30 and $35 per hour, as the job advertisement goes. There is definitely a good reason that the community would feel excited and revved up.
3. Inexpensive energy source.
If you think your energy bill is high, think about how much more expensive it will be if coal is non-existent. Remember that coal provides the electricity, and is also used in the manufacture of refrigerator and freezer that ensures preservation of perishable food. If coal was not available, such luxuries would not exist.
It is cheaper compared to other fossil fuels for a variety reasons. First off, coal extraction is not difficult, whether it is mined on the surface or underground. Between opencast mining (surface) and deep mining (underground), the former recovers 90% or more of the coal compared to the latter, which basically means that miners do not have to go deep in the earth all the time. They just need large heavy equipment and explosives to expose the coal seams. It is also safe to store and easy to burn which, by the way, produces by-products that are useful for other industries or products.
Transportation of coal is also easier and cheaper. Unlike oil, it does not go through high pressure pipelines that require expensive upkeep. The abundance of coal also means extra security is unnecessary when it is being transported from one area to the next. Generation facilities also need low capital investment to get started.
4. Plenty of applications.
As already mentioned, coal is very versatile, not just for electricity generation. Even its by-products have amazing uses. Refined coal tar, for example, is used to produce phenol, creosote oil, naphthalene and other chemicals. Aspirin, soap, dyes and fabrics also make use of coal’s by-products. Coal itself is also used on specialist products, including activated carbon that is used to manufacture water filters, air purifiers and kidney dialysis machines. Carbon fiber and silicon metal also use coal as an essential ingredient. Everyone who knows the purpose of such materials knows just how important the role coal plays. Shampoos and toothpaste would not be the same without them.
5. Independent of the weather.
The only time that coal mining may be halted is when the site is declared dangerous or inoperable. But if it is just rain or strong winds, work would still continue and power plants will remain in operation. This means a continuous supply of electricity. If domestic and commercial establishments were to rely on wind turbines, solar panels, or hydro-energy sources, the availability of power would depend on existing climatic conditions. Companies cannot afford to shut their operation down simply because the sun would not come out, or that winds are not blowing hard enough to turn windmills.
6. Reduce dependence on oil.
In President Obama’s address entitled “Energy Security Can Only Come If We Invest in Cleaner Fuels and Greater Efficiency”, he emphasized on energy security, which can be achieved by reducing dependency on foreign oil, a reality that is considered a national security risk since they are sourced from nations with unstable political regimes. But the better solution would be energy independency that coal can help deliver, especially now that electric cars are growing in popularity. Since they only need to be recharged, dependency on foreign oil can be cut by a third by 2025.
Moreover, there are no governing bodies, like OPEC, involved in coal mining and productions, so there are no politics involved and no one will dictate the terms of its operation. Although there are rules and regulations that need to be followed, no one or two nations have a chokehold on coal mining.
List of Disadvantages of Coal
1. Environmental impact.
Burning coal may produce useful by-products, but it can also emit harmful wastes, such as carbon dioxide, sulfuric acid, arsenic, ash, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. Emissions of CO2 from coal burning also accounts for the additional 65% of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, increasing greenhouse gases. To anyone’s books, this means climate change and global warming. The pollution it causes has also led to acid rain in some areas. Although there are a lot of causes of acid rain, burning coal is a major contributor because it releases sulfur dioxide, and acid rain has higher than normal amounts of sulfuric and nitric acid.
Newer coal plants, however, now emits 40% less CO2, according to the World Coal Institute. But this is still far from being able to repair whatever damage older plants have made. This is probably why Norway plans to sell off many of its coal-related investments as a means to curtail climate change.
2. Coal mining impact.
Remember that coal seams are surrounded by plants, rivers and other natural landscapes, and digging for coal would mean destroying forest areas that serves as wildlife habitat. There is little doubt that the ecosystem and biodiversity would take a beating. The process also results in water, soil and air pollution, thus the acid rain. The noise coming from large mining equipment can also hurt local wildlife.
Transporting coal would also require an extensive transportation system that is likely to pass through mountains, valleys, etc. Building such infrastructure would not only destroy the landscape, but also increases pollution due to emissions from various vehicles.
Over the past 25 years, however, U.S. coal operations have already reclaimed over 2.3 million acres of land mined. The U.S. coal mines, since 1978, have also paid over $7 billion to reclaim mined lands that have been abandoned. The move was even done long before laws for reclamation was passed. But would the ruin landscapes ever fully recover? One thing is for sure, they will never be the same.
3. Impact on miners’ health.
Even before a coal miner gets sick due to inhalation of fumes and the like, they are at risk of being buried deep in the earth. Underground mining, after all, is prone to cave-ins and explosions. But the real risk is on the miners’ health and those of the people living close to the dig areas. In fact, between 50,000 and 130,000 people are displaced once a coal mine opens up. Constant exposure to harmful chemicals can lead to respiratory diseases, lung cancer, black lung due to coal dust, congestive heart failure, nervous system damage due to mercury, and low-birth weight. Because emissions and particulates from coal mining can also degrade and soil buildings, human health is also inadvertently affected.
When acid rain becomes prevalent, it can also lead to more problems even to people who are far from the coal mines. After all, coal dust and other hazardous substances can be carried through the winds, polluting everything in their path.