Environmental Business and Energy Information Services
Fossil Fuels - Coal
A new book on Renewable Energy Fuels:
Coal is a fossil fuel formed from the remains of plants and animals of ancient times having undergone tremendous decomposition and compaction. It is a sedimentary rock formation which is black or brownish black in colour. It is a highly combustible rock and it has been used for centuries to provide heat in power generating plants. Coal is probably used to power close to 60-70% of the historical and current world Power plants. Coal is buried far deep in the ground and requires a lot of efforts to mine it from the ground.
It is also very dangerous to mine because it is always underground and requires some excavation (horizontal drilling) or digging of holes through the ground (vertical drilling) to reach. Many miners have either been trapped for months, died or contacted various disorders for exposure to dusts form coal mines.
Besides the difficulty in mining, coal produces pollutants that have, potentially, negative impacts on humans and on the environment. Burning coal in power plants generate Mercury, SO2, and CO2 emissions. Mercury is toxic to humans and animals, SO2 leads to acid rain and CO2 is one of the greenhouse gases that trap heat in our atmosphere leading to rising global temperatures and producing other several devastating effects.
Alternative energy sources are required to address the above shortcomings of coal. Some of these alternatives are solar, wind etc. (see links to these sources on the left pane of this page). Besides these energy sources, other proposals include the use of Clean Coal Technologies to clean up operations of coal-fired plants.
Furthermore, coal is non-renewable. Since it is a fossil fuel formed over a long period of time, it is impossible to replenish this resource over the lifespan of a generation.
The world's energy needs are tremendously increasing because of our lifestyles that necessitate voracious energy consumption and conversely the coal and other fossil fuels repositories are dwindling very fast with no assurance that any could be left behind for generations yet unborn.Despite all the shortcomings of coal as an energy source, the use of this resource will continue to be with us for a long time to come for few reasons:
- Over centuries, tremendous investments have been made to acquire the equipment and manpower for processing energy through coal. Many companies and organizations that have made these investments will find migrating to alternative/renewable sources very challenging;
- Coal is still considered the cheapest form of energy. ABC news mentioned in one of the videos above that the cost of energy through coal is 3 cents /KWh as compared to 20 cents / KWh and 14 cents /KWh for Solar and Wind respectively. There is still a large reserve of coal in the ground.
To continue to use energy from coal we may have to clean up the coal energy production process as discussed under clean coal technology section. This will include reducing chemicals (Mercury and others) and SO2 in the emissions leaving a coal plant; and collecting and storing away underground the CO2 leaving the power plants.
Adopting a mix of all energy production strategies appears to be the way to go. We should explore Cleaner Coal Energy Plants, safely managed Nuclear Power Plants and the green/renewable energy sources (Solar. Wind, Geothermal, hydroelectric etc) and meet the world's energy through these various forms. Diversification into all energy sources and drastically reduced reliance on coal and other fossil fuels will enhance the sustainability of fossil fuel resources. a one-time migration from fossil fuels to green energy sources may not be visible. However, a consistent gradual migration will work. The price of energy production from renewable sources, which is quite higher than cost of using coal, will drop as we continue to develop the green energy technologies.