In the United States, the use of coal for energy production is widespread across every region. The combustion of coal accounts for approximately 69% of America’s 1,774 million metric tons of CO2 emissions. Coal has been used for millennia, and, in relatively recent years, it has been used to meet the energy needs of civilization. However, this does not mean that its use should be continued. The health and environmental effects of coal have been and continue to be tremendous and devastating.
There are other available fuel sources which are significantly more efficient and less harmful for mankind like natural gas and nuclear. Since other energy sources which allow for more efficient and less harmful energy production are available, coal should not be considered a viable option for meeting civilization’s energy needs. Coal is an energy source that, to put simply, is burned to produce usable energy. Combustion occurs when a chemical reacts with oxygen and produces energy. Because coal is used in a combustion reaction, the covalent bonds which hold the fuel together are broken.
Then, the newly free bound O2 (oxygen) molecule combines with a C (carbon) atom to create CO2 (carbon dioxide).
When it comes to describing the chemical reaction formula for coal, the reaction between carbon and oxygen is used, C + O2 CO2. The reaction that takes place to convert the chemical energy stored within the bonds of coal to kinetic energy is like fossil fuels’ reactions. Combustion is also used to harvest energy from natural gas and petroleum.
In a car engine, gasoline, a product of petroleum, is burned to produce energy, and CO2 is emitted in the atmosphere, just like coal combustion. Switching energy sources, the combustion of natural gas releases CO2 into the atmosphere as well. However, fewer byproducts are released when comparing natural gas to petroleum and coal. The chemical formula of coal varies. Because of the different conditions coal is exposed to when forming, it can be found in different forms.
These forms are classified as anthracite, bituminous, sub-bituminous, and lignite. For bituminous coal, elemental analyses give an empirical formula of C137H97O9NS. An empirical formula is a formula which shows the simplest ratios of elements. In addition, an empirical formula of C240H90O4NS is given for high-grade anthracite. The energy content of coal is comparable to other fossil fuels, but it gives off a significant amount of CO2 compared to other fuel sources. The average energy content of coal is approximately 39.9 kJ/g; this varies based on the equipment used and the type of coal. The amount of energy stored in coal is significantly less than other fuels like natural gas. Natural gas typically has an energy content of 51.6 kJ/g. Therefore, the energy content of natural gas is nearly 30% greater than coal. Moreover, coal combustion releases a notably greater amount of CO2 than natural gas. In fact, coal releases 66% more CO2 than natural gas (Western Oregon University). The most common system used to produce energy from coal is a pulverized coal combustion (PCC) system (World Coal Association).
First, coal is milled into a fine powder and is blown into a combustion chamber of a boiler where it is burnt at a high temperature. The heat from the combustion reaction is used to heat a boiler filled with water. The water then turns into steam, and the steam is used to power a turbine. The turbine is in turn used to generate electricity through a generator. Many scientists are attempting to create a more effective coal combustion system. However, a majority of these newer systems use the same principles as a PCC system. Coal has been used for thousands of years for different purposes. The use of coal can be traced back thousands of years ago. First, cavemen used it for heating. Romans in England also used it for heating. Hopi Indians even used it to make pottery. Then, in the 1700s the English found that coal burned cleaner and hotter than charcoal, so they began using coal to heat their homes. In the 1770s James Watt used coal in his invention, the steam engine. During the Industrial Revolution in the United States, coal was widely used for the power of steamships and steam-powered railroads. Subsequently, coal was used in weapon factories during the American Civil War. In the 1880s coal was first used to generate electricity for homes and factories.
Finally, by 1961-2009 coal was the main fuel source to generate electricity in the U.S. according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Coal deposits are found all over the world. In the United States, coal deposits are found in every major region. Coal is also the basis of the economy for many cities and towns across the U.S. Some specific areas where coal is located include the Appalachian Mountains, the Powder River Basin (Wyoming), and the Denver Basin (Colorado). Also, coal deposits are of great prevalence in parts of Europe, Russia, Asia, and Australia (Golden Dragon Capital). Coal negatively affects the environment in a monumental manner. The environmental impacts are virtually endless. One negative effect is Acid Mining Drainage (AMD). AMD refers to the outflow of acidic water from coal or metal mines. This acidic water often makes its way into nearby rivers and streams and wreaks havoc on the ecosystem.
Furthermore, air pollution from power plants can lead to smog, acid rain, and toxicity in the environment; some pollutants include sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. In addition, coal combustion waste is the United State’s second largest waste source after municipal solid waste. This leads to overfilling landfills and more toxicities in the environment. Also, due to mountaintop removal mining, forest destruction occurs. Lastly, coal plants cause thermal pollution. Thermal pollution occurs when water used as a coolant is returned to the natural environment at a higher temperature. The change in temperature impacts organisms by decreasing oxygen supply and affects the composition of the ecosystem. Not only does coal affect the health of the environment, it negatively impacts the health humans of too. Coal miners typically have a reduced life expectancy due to the particulates (small particles of coal) they are exposed to when mining.
One health effect of coal mining is congestive heart failure. This can occur because of a miner’s exposure to particulate and carbon monoxide. In addition to congestive heart failure, coal miners are at risk to contract black lung disease. Black lung disease is also known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), and it causes scarring on an affected person’s lungs. Symptoms of CWP include coughing with black sputum, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. To add to the health effects of coal mining, those exposed to particulates can contract chronic bronchitis. Coal also impacts humans living near mines and power plants. In fact, one study from Michigan Technological University found that switching from coal-powered energy to solar polar or wind would prevent nearly premature 51,000 deaths each year.
Also, in 2008 the World Health Organization (WHO) and other health organizations calculated coal particulate pollution causes approximately one million deaths annually. To conclude, Maryland’s state nurses association commissioned a study in 2006 that found emissions from only six of Maryland’s coal-powered plants caused over 100 deaths just in Maryland. Due to the health and environmental concerns of coal mining and coal combustion, a variety of laws have been set in place to control the negative consequences of coal use. The main U.S. statue controlling mining is the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). Under the law, each state must establish a federally approved enforcement program to regulate coal use. Other federal laws affecting coal mining include the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.
The Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop and enforce regulations to protect the public from exposure to airborne contaminants that are known to be hazardous to human health. The Clean Water Act (CWA) ‘establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters,” (EPA). Also, In December 2011, the Obama administration announced the new rule to limit emissions of mercury, arsenic and other toxic substances from sources like power plants. Under the new rule, power plants can emit 1.2 pounds of mercury per million BTUs (British Thermal Unit) of energy produced. The cost of using coal is significant and is greater than the cost of natural gas when calculating the cost of externalities coal creates. Economists refer to additional damages caused by energy use as an externality.
Before accounting for external costs, a coal plant is a competitively priced way to produce electricity, but the costs of coal increase dramatically when the full costs of production are included (the graph below shows this(True Costs…). Coal is competitively priced because the private cost of coal, meaning the cost of simply operating a coal plant is relatively cheap. However, due to the health and environmental problems the use and mining of coal create, the cost of externalities increasing greatly. For example, after a company completes mountaintop removal mining, they must put capital forth so they can “restore” the mountaintop (this is an example of a non-carbon external cost). In fact, one Harvard study found that coal creates $50 million worth of extra damages.
In the end, the operating cost of another fuel source like natural gas may be greater than coal, but the final financial cost of natural gas is less than coal when calculating the cost of externalities. *Calculations are based on the National Academy of Science’s estimates of the non-carbon (primarily health) costs from producing a kWh of the various energy sources and the United States Government’s estimates of the damages from climate change due to the release of greenhouse gases. Due to the low private cost of coal, coal companies often make tremendous profits. In 2011, one coal company, CONSOL Energy Inc reported $632.5 million in profits. Also, Arch Coal Inc. earned $205.2 million in 2011 as well. Furthermore, even though the coal industry is in decline, companies have still managed to increase their income.
Another company, Peabody Energy Corp., has increased its net income nearly 113% since 2009. Moreover, Alliance Resource Partners, L.P., managed to increase its income by more than 290% from 2008 to 2011. From 2004 to 2009, coal companies made millions of dollars. The graph below compares the profits of some of the biggest coal companies in the United States (Coal Industry Profits). Since other energy sources which allow for more efficient and less harmful energy production are available, coal should not be considered a viable option for meeting civilization’s energy needs. It is apparent that coal has many detrimental effects on environmental and human health. The amount of CO2 and harmful toxicities it releases into the atmosphere is far greater than any other fuel source by a significant amount.
Also, coal is not more cost-effective than other fuel sources when externalities are accounted for. Lastly, coal is much less energy efficient than other comparable fuel sources. It would be much wiser for society to switch their fossil fuel consumption to another source like natural gas. Review News Article: New coal technology harnesses energy without burning… Because of the immense amount of CO2 that coal releases in a combustion reaction, scientists across the country are rushing to create an effective system which allows for a minimal amount of CO2 to be emitted. A group of researchers created a technology called Coal-Direct Chemical Looping (CDCL). This technology chemically harnesses the energy found in coal. Also, it allows for the CO2 produced to be stored or even recycled. At Ohio State University, researchers set out to create a successful clean-coal operating system.
They created a CDCL system. This system ran for nine straight days and captured over 99% of the CO2 produced. The operation was successful and the researchers hope their technology can be used at a large commercial scale. I believe the article contained an insightful description of an effort to create a new “clean-coal” technology. The article was written in 2013, meaning there are likely more technologies which have been created since a CDCL system. However, the article is still relevant because it deals with fixing the main consequence of coal use: CO2 emissions. Also, with the article coming from a trustworthy source, ScienceDaily, it adds even more credibility to the research conducted. Lastly, this information can better inform my research because it shows that people have done something to create new technologies and that it is possible to create energy from coal with emitting a limited amount of CO2.