In 2005, coal produced 49.7 per cent of the electricity supply in the United States, according to the Energy Literacy website. Many countries use coal for many of its energy needs. Coal offers distinct advantages and disadvantages as a power source going into the future.
Compared to oil and gas, coal is the most abundant of the fossil fuels. According to Planete Engeries, the world reserves will last at least 200 years at current rates of use. The United States, which is that largest energy-consuming country in the world, also has the largest coal reserves of any other nation.
Advantage: Infrastructure and Technology
Coal has been used as an energy source for a long time. The systems used to transport coal from mine to power plant are well established. Coal is delivered to power plants primarily by the train load. Coal is also relatively easy to mine for compared to other fossil fuels such as oil and gas. According to Energy Literacy, half of the current reserves in the United States are mineable using current technologies.
Coal is also the cheapest fossil fuel option because of its abundance and ease of mining. Many countries are turning to coal as a means of producing electricity because of the increase in costs for oil and gas.
Disadvantage: Carbon Dioxide
The major disadvantage of burning all fossil fuels is the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Increased carbon dioxide levels have been liked to climate change. Coal also releases the largest amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere compared to either oil or gas.
Disadvantage: Sulfur Dioxide
Another byproduct of burning coal as an energy source is the release of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. Sulphur dioxide converts to sulphuric acid through oxidation and becomes a component of acid rain.
Disadvantage: Amounts Needed
Power plants that burn coal to produce electricity are run 24 hours a day and need to burn large amounts of coal to keep production up. This means that shipments of coal are delivered regularly and stored on site. Large piles of coal are stored at the power plant and take up large swathes of land around the plant.
While coal is the most plentiful of the fossil fuels, it is a finite resource. Once the reserves on Earth are used up, no more can be created. While it is widely estimated 200 years worth of reserves remain at current use, Energy Literacy estimates the consumption of coal will increase 71 per cent between 2004 and 2030.