While natural gas has been waging a war on coal, coal will likely persist as a serious player in the energy market. Coal is inexpensive, plentiful, and easy to mine, ship, and burn. It is a cheap energy source for developing countries, and a great way for these countries to become rich.
Still, the issue remains that coal is not a clean energy source. Mining, transporting, storing and burning coal is a dirty job; underground mining can cause health issues for miners. Transporting coal has negative environmental impacts; opencast mining, a surface mining technique, destroys topsoil and devours water supplies. Coal is the biggest single source of pollution in the world, expending one-third of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.
The US is experiencing a large shift away from coal and towards natural gas. Many big US coal companies, like American Electric Power and Duke Energy, are closing coal-fired plants. Yet, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that coal will still be producing 22% of the US’s energy by 2040. Coal currently produces 26% of the US’s energy. China, the world’s biggest pollutant, is trying to restrict its coal consumption, but developing countries like Africa and India are picking up where China has left off. In Germany, coal is the cheapest it’s ever been. Japan, too, has recently authorized a new energy plan that has solidified coal’s role as the country’s main energy source.
Besides these boons for coal, international coal companies should still be worried for two reasons: one, that governments will place restrictions on coal; and two, the global oversupply of coal, which has pushed prices down and caused some coal companies to lose profits.
Still, coal remains a worthy adversary to oil and gas. Coal mining doesn’t necessitate expensive equipment, like drills, platforms and pipes, and when prices drop, companies can stop manufacturing and wait until prices pick back up.
Technological advances for producing clean coal—pulverizing coal, separating the gas from coal, scrubbing emissions and capturing carbon dioxide—look promising, though the methods are costly. A $5.2 billion clean-coal plant is being built in Mississippi, which was entirely funded by taxpayers. This will be the most expensive power plant ever completed, so we can probably safely assume that clean-coal plants won’t be the norm any time soon.
Developed and Written by Dr. Subodh Das and Tara Mahadevan
April 20, 2014
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