A quick Google search will tell you that coal is bad for the environment, and we need to ditch it in favor of renewables. Yet, despite this scientific consensus, the world is still getting 37% of its energy from coal.
And some of the biggest energy users, like China, are still building new coal energy plants. Let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of using coal.
What Is Coal Energy?
Coal is the most abundant fossil fuel on our planet with a supply that can support the world for the next 132 years. Plants from millions of years ago were covered by rock and dirt. And over time, the pressure resulted in the creation of coal.
The energy stored within coal is released when the substance is burned, which is what we know as coal energy today.
Advantages of Coal Energy
1. Coal Is Normally the Cheapest Option
Now there are plenty of instances where the price of other fossil fuels and even renewables have been cheaper than coal, but generally speaking, coal is consistently the cheapest option.
This is because it doesn’t require any processing or special storage. You mine it from the ground, and it’s ready to go. Granted, global conditions have forced the price to nearly quadruple in recent months. But, this is only temporary.
2. Not Weather Dependent
Unlike most renewable sources of energy, coal plants can produce energy regardless of the weather. This means that they are not only a reliable source of energy but they can also be built anywhere.
This makes them an attractive option for both developing and developed nations, at least, before the world started trying to curb its own emissions.
3. It’s Abundant
While the power rationing in China may lead you to believe there is a coal shortage, the reality of the situation is that coal is the most abundant fossil fuel. Not only that, but it’s also the easiest to access.
The current shortage is artificial and stems from the world looking to retire coal to reduce emissions.
4. The Infrastructure Is Already There
While there are plenty of other options to consider, coal is already here, and it works. Shutting down a coal plant in favor of setting up another plant that uses a different fuel source or renewable is expensive.
After all, it’s not just the cost of setting up a new plant. You also need to consider the cost of shutting down an existing one.
Disadvantages of Coal Energy
Coal is composed mostly of carbon and hydrocarbons. Thus when it is burned for energy, it emits carbon. A lot of carbon.
It is the fossil fuel that emits the most of this harmful byproduct. For comparison, natural gas, another popular fossil fuel, emits 50% less carbon than coal.
While modern coal burning is 70% cleaner than it was in the 1970s, it still holds onto its throne as the biggest emitter.
However, the burning of coal is only part of its emissions problem. Transporting coal is a massive undertaking. It takes very large vehicles to transport coal and move it around during the mining process.
This also adds to the emissions total.
2. Other Pollutants
Now, coal doesn’t just have the title of the biggest emitter of carbon. It’s also the biggest pollutant. Burning coal releases particulates into the atmosphere that have a negative impact on the lungs of any human or animal that breathes it in.
This matter is also responsible for creating weather phenomenons known as smog or haze. The bottom line, it’s a dirty energy source.
Mining for any natural resource, whether it is lithium, iron, or coal, has a negative impact on the land and surrounding area. It ends up destroying habitats and rendering the land unusable for anything else as a result of the tunnels.
At best, abandoned coal mines end up as grassland or forest land.
4. Coal Miner’s Health
Coal mining is a notoriously brutal profession that often permanently hurts the miners in the form of respiratory diseases. The most infamous one is called “Black Lung” where the dust from the coal mining process settles within the miner’s lung.
Other diseases include lung cancer and congestive heart failure. Again, coal is a dirty substance from the mining process, all the way to its usage.
The Cons Outweigh the Pros
While coal is a cheap and abundant source of energy, it’s also extremely unhealthy to not only the workers but everyone else as well. However, without a doubt, the emissions alone are enough to warrant its retirement.
Yet, as we are currently seeing, it’s not easy for the world to walk away from coal.
From a business perspective, it’s still worth using. The only way it will ever truly be retired is if nations completely ban the substance, or incentivize cleaner sources to make it more worthwhile to switch.
Robert has been following and writing about environmental stories for years at GreenGeeks. He believes that highlighting environmentally friendly practices can help promote change in every household.