Let’s take a moment to talk about coal—it’s the first non-renewable combustible fuel man ever gathered and used. Coal mining predates Christ by thousands of years, but its importance can be seen everywhere because the modern world would simply not exist without coal. Try and picture American history and western expansion without coal, or rather, railroads, because railroads wouldn’t exist without locomotives, which ran on coal. The iron that built the tracks, railroad cars and engines wouldn’t have been commercially viable without coal to fuel the fires that melt the iron. Without a rail system, the west would not have been tamed. As a matter of fact, America wouldn’t have become an industrial superpower without coal to fuel progress. Without coal, the world may have not undergone any sort of industrial revolution at any place or time.
Now the proper context for bashing coal has been established. As of 2008, coal is still most commonly used fuel for electricity production on the planet. It is estimated that 40% of the worlds electricity comes from coal-burning power plants, despite all the advances made in energy production using cleaner power sources like wind energy, solar, nuclear, natural gas, and hydroelectric power production.
According to the pro-coal lobby group Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC) website, americaspower.org, roughly half of America’s electricity comes from coal powered electricity generators—not much balance there, eh? The website, tasked to sell coal energy to those who view it, presents a map of the USA. Users can click on any state in the union and see 2 bits of data—a 50 state ranking of electricity cost, as well as the percentage of that state’s electricity that comes from coal. Not surprisingly, the states with a high percentage of coal energy production have the lowest prices for electricity, and the states with other means of energy production have the most costly energy. This is the only selling point for coal presented by ABEC on their website, because coal energy production has no other endearing qualities. Coal mining is less than glamorous, for both the natural landscape and the workers—thousands die every year worldwide. Modern, so-called “clean” Coal burning power plants produce a wide array of pollution, including (but not limited to) sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, lead, arsenic, cadmium, etc. into the air and earth, not to mention vast amounts of Carbon Dioxide, the leading global warming culprit.
So why are we still burning coal to make electricity when there are so many cleaner options? Look no further than the $$$ signs. It’s cheap and abundant, especially in America, the country with the world’s largest energy reserves. There’s a large, powerful industrial/financial infrastructure sparing no expense to solidify and expand Coal’s presence in the energy market, manipulating the public with websites like americaspower.org, and controlling energy policy with campaign contributions to politicians.
The solution to this problem is very complex. Would it be smart to shut down every coal plant in the USA immediately, forcing an already cash-strapped America to purchase more expensive electricity? Obviously it wouldn’t, but people must understand where their electricity comes from. For example, according to americaspower.org, Wyoming residents get 94.5% of their electricity from coal power plants. Essentially, this means: if you live in Cheyenne, consider yourself “green” and drive a rare electric car like the discontinued GM EV1, you’re actually driving a coal-powered car because almost every bit of locomotion you get comes from coal being burned. You might as well restore and old coal-powered steam engine and shoe-horn it into a 70’s chevy.
People rarely associate energy usage at home or at work with coal being burned. It would certainly help if all citizens of coal-energy-heavy states had to do a day of volunteer work at the local coalmine or power plant, to get up close and personal with the sooty, messy coal industry. Maybe then people would care a little and start to hold people like George W. Bush accountable for uttering oxymorons like “clean coal” and, perhaps, take action to eliminate coal energy production altogether.
Coal can be looked at as a necessary evil for developing nations. Advancement and progress of mankind (whether that’s a good thing remains debatable) would not have been possible without a superabundant, cheap source of energy. China, still in its developing phase, depends on coal for more than 80% of its electricity. Coal haters must understand its place in history, and how much of a role it played in creating the societies within which such charmed lives are lived. This is not to say that coal is good—it can be viewed as a means to an end. It helped create the societies in this world that are currently using their knowledge, means, and scientific/technological advancements to create truly clean systems of energy production that will replace coal completely in the not-so-distant future.