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9. What are some of the pros and cons of coal?Submitted by MikeChalberg on Mon, 2012-06-11 16:19
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As the world's energy demand steadily rises, fears over climate change, higher costs, foreign energy dependence, and a lack of supply all contribute to the discussion over how best to solve the problem. Without a doubt, coal is at the center of this debate in the United States. So what exactly are the pros and cons of coal energy?
Coal is extremely plentiful, particularly on American soil. It is expected that coal supplies will outlast both oil and natural gas given the current rates of consumption and known supplies still unused.
It is relatively cheap and efficient. Therefore, it can help ensure lower energy bills for Americans at a time when many are experiencing increased financial strain.
Though coal mining is dangerous, coal plants are not. When fears began to rise over nuclear power, demand for coal quickly increased.
The startup and infrastructure costs of coal production are far cheaper than oil or natural gas. Further, the coal industry is an established and mature industry, meaning that production costs will continue to drop, leading to lower prices for consumers.
Coal can be used in a variety of ways for a variety of purposes. Though primarily burned to create electricity, coal can also be used in a liquid or gaseous form for home appliances or industrial manufacturing.
Coal currently accounts for about 40% of all electricity production in the United States. Such a large amount of energy cannot be quickly replaced by an alternative fuel. It is also able to provide continuous energy, unlike solar or wind power.
Coal also has a high load factor (about 80%). This means that the energy extracted from coal is a high percentage of the total potential energy it contains to begin with. Solar energy, for example, has an extremely low load factor - the sun contains an incredible amount of potential energy, yet current technologies only allow us to harvest and convert a very small percentage of it. Currently, only a minuscule amount of the sun's energy can be productively harvested and converted to useful energy.
Unlike oil, the U.S. is a net exporter of coal. Not only is the coal industry important to the United States' economy, but it also lessens our dependence on foreign sources of energy, namely, oil.
The development of clean coal technology will be able to lower harmful emissions while still maintaining coal's productivity.
Coal is a large pollutant, especially of carbon dioxide, which many believe is resulting in large-scale climate change. The EPA estimates that coal is responsible for 31% of all carbon dioxide emitted into the earth's atmosphere. Due to a high volume of coal production and usage, the U.S. and China account for about one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Its sulfur and nitrogen emissions create acid rain, which poses a threat to our water and food supplies. Coal plants also emit unsafe levels of mercury, arsenic and selenium.
Coal decreases air quality in localized areas, creating possible respiratory health risks.
Clean coal is yet unproven and carbon capture and storage may not be as effective as some hope. Moreover, construction costs for these new plants are quite high. Many states cannot currently afford such large-scale investments.
Coal mining is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world and has led to thousands of deaths. Moreover, new techniques such as mountaintop removal, have led to increased environmental destruction. This type of surface mining has directly led to flooding, serious erosion, and permanent aesthetic changes.
Mining also releases high levels of methane.
The mineral is a finite resource. Though it is currently abundant in comparison to other energy resources, it will likely be exhausted within the next couple of centuries. Therefore, alternative fuels must be supported.
Unlike forms of alternative energy, the highest output of energy from coal has most likely already been tapped. In other words, it already has a very high load factor. Other sources of energy might very well be able to provide unimaginable levels of energy in the near future. As technology progresses, these energy sources will only grow in efficiency and production while coal will likely remain stagnant.
Now that you know a bit more about this fascinating and controversial industry, you should be able to come to your own conclusion about what its status should be in the United States. For more related information check out FAQs on alternative energy, solar power, and natural gas and fracking.