The most abundant fossil fuel in the United States, coal fuels nearly half of the power plants in the country. And, in many countries, coal is still the primary source of fuel. However, with the threat of global warming, many people worry about the negative effects of burning coal for energy. In fact, there are numerous advantages and disadvantages of using coal as an energy source.
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Coal is the world's largest source of energy for a reason: it is readily available. North America alone contains 272,569 million short tons of coal reserves, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Coal, like all fossil fuels, is a nonrenewable resource. What we know as coal, today, started out as dead plant matter, and took millions of years to compress into its current form. We can eventually use up all of the coal reserves, and it would take millions of years to make more.
Much of the coal used for energy today, especially in the United States, is cleaned of impurities after it is mined, reducing some sulphur and nitrogen oxide emissions. In addition, many power plants employ mechanical "scrubbers" that partially desulfurize the gas, prior to release into the environment. However, neither of these techniques fully, or even mostly, eliminate harmful coal emissions.
When coal is burnt, it does release several harmful emissions, including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, mercury and particulates. These chemicals in the air variously contribute to acid rain, the greenhouse effect, respiratory problems in humans and, in the case of mercury poisoning, neurological damage.
Coal is the world's cheapest source of energy, and has been for quite a while. As of 2010, coal in the United States, on average, costs only £20 per short ton, compared to £1.90 for only a gallon of gasoline. In addition, as of 2010, it costs only £1.4 to generate 1 million Btu of energy by burning coal, compared to £8.70 by burning petroleum liquids and £3.10 by burning natural gas.
The actual process of mining coal, especially surface mining, often causes significant damage to the environment. In addition to the damage done to the landscape---clearing away trees and tearing up the ground---surface mining has been known to contaminate streams, even entire watersheds. Also, coal mining has long been linked to hypertension, kidney disease and, most notably, respiratory illnesses--like black lung disease and emphysema--not only among miners, but also among those who simply live near mining operations.
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- U.S. Energy Information Administration: Coal
- U.S. Energy Information Administration: Electric Power Monthly: August 2010
- U.S. Energy Information Administration: Energy Kids: Coal Basics
- U.S. Energy Information Administration: Petroleum
- ScienceDaily: Chronic Illness Linked To Coal-Mining Pollution, Study Shows