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Understanding Our Demand for Coal

Coal is the second most popular fossil fuel on the planet and provides 29% of our energy need.1 But what has made coal so popular and why do we continue to use it?

Q1 // What is It?

Coal is the second most popular fossil fuel on the planet and provides 29% of our energy needs.2 It is essentially a combustible solid mineral that’s formed from plant life that was buried, heated, and subjected to increasingly intense pressure for more than 100 million years.3

Q2 // Why Do We Like It?

Coal is the cheapest of all fossil fuels, costing less than 1¢ per kWh.4 However, because it takes up a lot of space, creates a lot of pollution, and does not work well in engines, it is not as practical as some other fossil fuels.5

We transport billions of tonnes of coal to our power plants every year.6

Q3 // How Much Do We Use?

Each year, we use an estimated 7.6 billion tonnes of coal.7 This is equal to the weight of some 750,000 Eiffel Towers.8 Of that total, a massive 59% is used to generate electricity as well as some 19% for manufacturing.9

Q4 // How is Coal Turned Into Electricity?

Electricity is generated from coal by transforming heat energy into mechanical energy and then mechanical energy into electrical energy.10 This is achieved by using heat from burnt coal to turn water into steam.11 The steam then spins a turbine that, in turn, spins a large magnet suspended within a wire coil.12 This transforms the mechanical energy contained within the spinning turbine into electrical energy the held within the wire coil.13 The electrical energy can then be distributed via cables.14 Unfortunately, the whole process is hugely inefficient. Of the total energy embodied within coal, only 40% is successfully converted into electricity with some 60% lost as heat.15 Added to this, some 10% of the electricity generated is lost because of distribution inefficiencies.16

Q5 // How Much Does the Electricity Cost?

Due to the complex and inefficient process in creating electricity, the total cost per kilowatt-hour is approximately 9.5¢.17 This means generating electricity from coal is around ten times more expensive than generating heat from coal. On top of this, recent reports indicate that the impact of coal-fired power on public health, the environment and the economy contributes an additional 17.8¢ per kWh.18 That means the actual cost of coal is more likely some 28.3¢ per kWh.

Coal power plants pump billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Q6 // How Much Greenhouse Gas Does Coal Create?

For each kWh of energy extracted from coal, 320 grams of carbon dioxide is released.19 This makes it the most polluting of all the fossil fuels. When coal is used for electricity, the amount of pollution doubles, with each kWh of electrical consumption resulting in the equivalent of around 820 grams of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.20 In total, worldwide consumption of coal is responsible for the emission of a massive 13.9 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.21 That’s enough carbon dioxide to fill some three billion hot air balloons.22

Q7 // What Are We Doing to Reduce Coal Consumption?

Unfortunately, coal consumption is anticipated to grow at an alarming rate, with coal-related emissions predicted to increase by 23% over the next 35 years.23 This means, by the year 2050, coal will be responsible for pumping an extra 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.

Q8 // Are We Likely to Run Out Anytime Soon?

Coal is not likely to run out anytime soon. At the current rate of consumption, we have around 100 years’ worth of recoverable coal reserves left worldwide.24

Q9 // Can We Make Coal Electricity Generation Carbon-Free?

Carbon is embodied within coal and is unavoidably released as carbon dioxide when the coal is burnt.25 However, a technology called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has been developed to make it possible to capture up to 90% of the carbon dioxide once it has been released.26 The carbon dioxide could then be compressed and stored underground in saline aquifers (these are porous rocks filled with very salty water), disused oil fields or disused gas fields.27 Unfortunately, CCS power plants could be up to 91% more expensive than current models.28 Added to this, they need around 40% more fuel to run.29 Governments have subsequently been reluctant to invest, and to date, there is only one commercial CCS power plant in operation.30 This is despite the concept of CCS being discussed as early as 1977 and some 1,200 new coal power plants currently being proposed around the globe.31

Coal Demand in a Nutshell

To summarise, coal is a solid energy source that is primarily used to generate electricity. However, using coal produces large quantities of carbon dioxide – the key driver of climate change. The majority of the carbon dioxide could be captured, however, most people would likely be unwilling to pay the additional cost. As such, we need to find a cheaper solution to our carbon emissions. Let’s see if crude oil can offer one to us.

Image Credits

Title image ‘Coal‘ taken by Paul Downey, released on Flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0.

Image of coal cars (Ashtabula Coal Cars) taken by Decumanus, released on Wikimedia Commons and reproduced under Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Image of coal power plant taken by Claudia Otte and reproduced under license from Shutterstock.

General Notes

For the total landmass of the UK, a figure of 248,532 square kilometres has been used. The figure has been sourced from UK Office for National Statistics – 'The UK and Its Countries: Facts and Figures' – www.ons.gov.uk.

Barrels of oil equivalent based on 1628.2 kWh of energy being contained within each barrel. Data sourced from Unit Juggler – 'Converter: Barrel of Oil Equivalent to Kilowatt-Hour' – unitjuggler.com.

Article Endnotes

  1. Based on 2012 data sourced from International Energy Agency – 'World: Balances for 2012' – www.iea.org.
  2. Based on 2012 data sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘World: Balances for 2012’ – www.iea.org.
  3. Union of Concerned Scientists – ‘How Coal Works’ – www.ucsusa.org.
  4. Data based on coal producing 8 kWh of energy per kilogram and costing around $60 per short ton. Energy data sourced from European Nuclear Society – ‘Fuel Comparison’ – www.euronuclear.org. Coal price based on data from January 2014 for the USA and sourced from Quandl – ‘Coal Prices and Charts’ – www.quandl.com.
  5. Space requirements based on coal having an energy density of 24 megajoules per kilogram and petrol having an energy density of 45.8 megajoules per kilogram. Energy density sourced from Rodrigue, Jean-Paul – ‘Energy Content of Some Combustibles’ – hofstra.edu. Smoke production sourced from Union of Concerned Scientists – ‘Coal Power: Air Pollution’ – www.ucsusa.org. Coal performance within engines sourced from Woodford, Chris – ‘Steam Engines’ – www.explainthatstuff.com.
  6. Union of Concerned Scientists – ‘How Coal Works’ – www.ucsusa.org.
  7. Based on projected 2015 data sourced from Nehring, Richard – ‘Traversing the Mountaintop: World Fossil Fuel Production to 2050’ – Page 3,072.
  8. Figure rounded to nearest half million and based on the Eiffel Tower weighing 10,100 tonnes. Eiffel Tower weight sourced from The Eiffel Tower – ‘The Tower in Figures’ – Page 1.
  9. Based on 45.1 million GWh of coal energy used being in 2012, 26.4 million GWh of that energy being used by a combination of power plants or combined heat and power plants and 8.4 million GWh being used by industrial sector. Sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘World: Balances for 2012’ – www.iea.org.
  10. BBC GCSE Bitesize – ‘Generating Electricity’ – www.bbc.co.uk.
  11. BBC GCSE Bitesize – ‘Generating Electricity’ – www.bbc.co.uk.
  12. BBC GCSE Bitesize – ‘Generating Electricity’ – www.bbc.co.uk.
  13. BBC GCSE Bitesize – ‘Generating Electricity’ – www.bbc.co.uk.
  14. BBC GCSE Bitesize – ‘Generating Electricity’ – www.bbc.co.uk.
  15. Nicholls, Richard – ‘Low Energy Design’ – Interface Publishing – Page 5.
  16. Nicholls, Richard – ‘Low Energy Design’ – Interface Publishing – Page 5.
  17. Based on June 2015 data for an advanced coal power plant sourced from United States Energy Information Administration – ‘Levelized Cost and Levelized Avoided Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2015’ – Page 6.
  18. Epstein et al. – ‘Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal’ – Page 93.
  19. Based on commercial sector emissions and sourced from environmental Protection Agency – ‘Title 40: Protection of Environment’ – Table C-1.
  20. Energy and Policy Institute – ‘Part Two: The External Costs of Fossil Fuels; Environmental and Health Value of Solar’ – www.energyandpolicy.org.
  21. Based on 2012 data sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion: Highlights’ – Page 39.
  22. Based on the average hot air balloon being able to hold a volume of 2,548 cubic metres of air. Sourced from Sky Drifters – ‘FAQs: How Big is a Balloon’ – www.skydrifters.com.
  23. Data based on a projected consumption level of 7.6 billion tonnes for 2015 and a projected consumption level of 9.4 billion tonnes for 2050. Sourced from Nehring, Richard – ‘Traversing the Mountaintop: World Fossil Fuel Production to 2050’ – Page 3,072.
  24. World Coal Association – ‘Where is Coal Found?’ – www.worldcoal.org.
  25. United States Energy Information Administration – ‘Carbon Dioxide Emission Factors for Coal’ – www.eia.gov.
  26. The Carbon Capture and Storage Association – ‘What is CCS?’ – www.ccsassociation.org.
  27. The Carbon Capture and Storage Association – ‘Storage’ – www.ccsassociation.org.
  28. Based on June 2015 data sourced from United States Energy Information Administration – ‘Levelized Cost and Levelized Avoided Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2015’ – Pages 6 to 12.
  29. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – ‘Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage’ – Page 43.
  30. Goldenberg, Suzanna – ‘Canada Switches On World’s First Carbon Capture Power Plant’ – www.theguardian.com.
  31. Research date sourced from International Energy Agency Greenhouse Gas Research and Development Programme – ‘A Brief History of CCS and Current Status’ – Datasheet. Number of coal power plants proposed sourced from Yang, Ailun and Cui, Yiyun – ‘Global Coal Risk Assessment: Data Analysis and Market Research’ – Page 5.

For further information about any of the above sources, please visit the ZERO EMISSION WORLD Works Cited page.

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