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OWOE - Coal Power - What are the pros and cons of coal energy?
  Figure 1 - US Historical Coal Production Through Dec 2018 (EIA)
Figure 1 - US Historical Coal Production Through Dec 2018 (EIA)
Figure 2 - US Historical Coal Plant Closures (EIA)
What are the pros and cons of coal energy?
Topic updated: 2019-11-15

Coal is the most abundant fossil fuel source in America and is a relatively inexpensive source of fuel for generating electricity. In addition there is substantial infrastructure in the United States for mining, processing, transporting, and storing coal to be used for power generation.

On the negative side:
  • Coal is a nonrenewable resource
  • Coal emits the largest amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) per kWH generated of all fossil fuels, and thus is the largest contributor to global warming
  • Coal mining can have serious environmental issues
  • The solid byproduct of burning coal, ash, can must be disposed of and can pose an environmental hazard
  • Coal burning releases sulfur dioxide (SOx) and nitrous oxide (NOx) which cause acid rain, if not captured
  • Coal burning emits heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic and chromium into the atmosphere, if not captured

Although all of these issues can be addressed to the extent that they comply with current rules and regulations, there is a strong and growing movement in the country against coal. It should also be noted that the full cost of coal power is not captured in today's power prices. In particular, the impact of CO2 emissions on the climate has led the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and US Congress to discuss the concept of a carbon tax as a way to penalize products, such as coal generated power, for CO2 emissions into the atmosphere and recognize increased environmental and societal costs of burning coal.

Despite the fact that the cons appear to outweigh the pros for burning coal, it remains a significant source of power throughout the world; however, it's use has been rapidly declining in recent years. This has been driven primarily by a combination of low natural gas prices and rapidly declining costs for wind and solar power generation which has created the situation where it is less expensive to build a new power plant than run an old one on coal in parts of the US. In 2014 coal provided approximately 40% of US electrical generation needs compared to approximately 27% projected for 2018, or a decline of about 33% in 3 years. Figure 1 shows historical US coal consumption, with 2018 expected to be the lowest in 39 years. This dramatic decline is expected to continue with anticipated closures of existing coal plants. Figure 2 shows historical and anticipated coal generaton capacity retirement as of December 2018. 2018 was the 2nd worst year (after 2015) in history for retirements.

Although the overall outlook for coal as an energy source appears dim, the fact that worldwide demand for electricity is continuing to rise, coupled with the abundance of coal as a fuel, indicates that coal will continue to be a necessary part of the world's energy mix for many years.

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