Old King Coal
Volume 1 - Issue 7
By Terry Wildman, Senior Editor
Then, in the gigantic industrial growth which occurred throughout the Western World in the last half of the nineteenth century, coal came to its throne and reigned with a despotism as black as its own dusty lumps. Ships, locomotives, factories and newly built electric power plants were driven by coal and millions of people warmed by its sooty flame. Steel and coal production were the yardsticks by which the Victorian world measured its increasing power, and it was inevitable that the confident overlords of the nation’s industrial empires should turn covetous eyes upon the mineral rich highlands.”1 So said Harry M. Caudill, American author, historian, lawyer, legislator, and environmentalist in reference to the vast coal reserves in the Cumberland Plateau of Kentucky. The direction was set and coal was solidifying its place on the planet as a primary source of electric energy production.
Problems caused by coal mining, coal transport, and coal combustion did not go unnoticed are well documented throughout social history. Each year, in the United States alone, coal-fired power plants emit some 43 tonnes of mercury into the air. This particularly harmful element is joined by a deadly cocktail of nearly 80 tonnes of lead, just over 73 tonnes of chromium, and about 45 tonnes of arsenic.2 The solid waste containing ash and scrubber sludge produced by those plants adds up to approximately 118 million tonnes. That volume of material is about three times the amount of all of the garbage produced in the U.S. every year.3
China and India, the world’s two most populous countries, both have huge deposits of coal and they make no apology for the fact they will use that coal to produce electricity. At the end of 2008, China’s electricity generation capacity was about 800,000 MW with eighty per cent of that coming from coal-fired plants. Between 1990 and 2008, India’s electricity production nearly tripled finally reaching 834.3 terawatt-hours in 2008 with 68 per cent of that power generation coming from coal. This meant a jump in the country’s coal output of 129 per cent to over 460 million tonnes and represents the third largest increase in coal production among the world’s major economies surpassed only by Indonesia and China with a 2038 per cent and 157 per cent surge repectively.4
Other energy sources notwithstanding, between 2007 and 2008, global coal use increased by about 800 million barrels of oil equivalent. “The paucity of electricity in the developing world and the absolute need for more electric power to help bring people out of poverty brings us to two key points: First, much of the new generation that will be installed in the developing world is going to come from coal-fired power plants because that is often the more affordable option. Second, the countries building these plants are far more concerned about raising the living standards of their citizens than they are about the amount of carbon dioxide they are producing.”5
Alan Pasternak was a scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. He worked on the development of new energy technologies including coal gasification and the use of Methyl alcohol for every day fuel. In 2000, he conducted a systematic analysis correlating electricity use and material wealth. He used the United Nations Human Development Index (UNHDI) as his baseline. The index looks at; life expectancy, nutrition, health, mortality, poverty, education, and access to safe water and sanitation. Armed with these stats, Pasternak then compared each country’s rank in the UNHDI with its electricity consumption. His findings were unequivocal and he wrote: “Neither the Human Development Index nor the Gross Domestic Product will increase without an increase in electricity use. The estimates of electricity use associated with high levels of human development presented in this analysis argue for substantially increased energy and electricity supplies in the developing countries and the formulation of supply scenarios that can deliver the needed energy within resource, capital, and environmental constraints.”6
No one can deny there are other sources of energy, some of which can provide large amounts of electric power without putting large amounts of pollutants into the air. The problem with replacing coal, however, is an issue of scale. On any given day, the world consumes about 66.3 million barrels of oil equivalent in the form of coal. Although coal deserves much of the criticism it gets, it has become the standard for electricity generation, especially in the world’s most populous countries. And the unquenchable demand for electricity continues to drive demand. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2009, coal use around the world between 2007 and 2008 increased by some 800 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. This figure is about twenty-five times as much energy as that produced by all of the solar panels and wind turbines in the U.S. in 2008.
“The world’s developing countries are using their coal for electricity generation, and that electricity is propelling economic growth around the world, particularly in rapidly developing countries such as China, Indonesia, and Malaysia,” says Robert Bryce, journalist and managing editor of Energy Tribune. “Between 1990 and 2008, electricity generation in those three countries jumped by more than 300 percent. The five countries with the largest increase in electricity generation during that time were: China (452%); Indonesia (353%); United Arab Emirates (352%); Malaysia (321%); and Qatar (307%).”7
The current state of affairs with respect to coal for the top five countries with the largest coal reserves looks like this:8
A recent U.S. Energy Information Administration report states that America’s coal-fired generation is falling due to a lower demand for the electricity. Total 2009 electricity production fell 3.7 per cent, which, according to federal figures, is the steepest one year decline in 72 years. Sadly this drop is a result of the current recession, not because renewable energy production is making a dent.
“The reality is that coal – even with its many negative attributes, continues to be the fuel of choice for creating electricity for a simple reason: cost,” states Bryce. “And though critics contend that coal imposes many costs that are not paid in the final price of electricity – such as air pollution, ecosystem destruction, miner deaths, and heavy metals contamination, to name just a few – the reality is that those ‘external’ costs, large though they may be, have become part of the tradeoff. The always-on, super-clean, super-abundant horsepower that electricity provides has so much value that citizens around the world are willing to ignore the heavy costs exacted by mining and burning coal.”
No matter where it comes from or how one looks at it, it seems comedian George Gobel said it right: “If it weren’t for electricity, we’d all be watching TV by candlelight.”
1Caudill, Harry H. Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area. Boston, U.S.A. Little Brown and Company, 1962