Coal gets a bad rap. It seems like when someone talks about coal, visions of mining accidents, dirty air, and blackened miners comes to mind. Coal is bad, dirty, and out-dated. But is it? And how does it fit in with other energy sources available today?

What is Coal?

Coal is the fossilized remains of ancient vegetation…trees that have been pressurized for millions of years. It is a true fossil fuel that is found primarily in former wetlands and marshes, where it decayed and formed peat, and then through the years was compressed and turned into coal. It is found in the form of a sedimentary rock, either deep brown or black. It contains high levels of carbon and hydrocarbon, which when burned, produces energy that is converted into electricity. It is found on every continent in the world and produces approximately 27.5% of our country’s energy from fossil fuels, second only to natural gas.

Clean Coal

Clean coal is the newest buzzword tossed around by politicians, environmentalists, and industry leaders. It is confusing because everyone clearly defines it differently. Basically, it is a term used to define capturing carbon emissions from burning coal and storing them underground. This is referred to as carbon capture and storage (CCS). This method is effective but is very expensive. And since the technology is in its infancy, the term has come to mean “cleaner” coal more often than not.

Ecologists and environmental scientists claim that the emission from fossil fuels is the primary culprit that causes climate change or global warming. And even with the CCS technology employed, the pollutants would still be present in the mining and transportation of the raw material. They point the finger saying that millions of tons of waste are generated each year, habitat is being destroyed, and toxins are affecting employees. So are we to abandon the use of coal as a power source?

Benefits of Coal Production

When looking to replace the use of coal as an electrical source, one has to look at the numbers. And the first number is a big one.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics , 52,000 people work in the coal mining industry. That number seems to be a bit convoluted though, since these reflect direct mine jobs. Add on several thousand more for truck drivers, warehouse workers, and electricians. Several other job categories may be included such as surveyors, mechanics, service technicians. And there are manufacturers who employ people who use coal in their production.
Coal mining and conversion is much less expensive than natural gas, oil, or nuclear power.
We have a bunch of it. Granted, it is a non-renewable source of energy but it is an abundant source of energy. Using coal, can also buy some time for scientists and researchers to ramp up other forms of fuel such as solar and nuclear.
Consider coal as being American made. Local and stable, oil embargoes are not going to affect the cost of coal.
By-products can be used as ingredients. Believe it or not, coal tar, a by-product of coal, is used in the manufacture of clothing materials, dyes and papers. Coal itself is used in the production of silicon and carbon fiber.

Regardless of your stance on using coal as a fuel, it all comes down to balancing the economical and ecological benefits and drawbacks. Until alternative forms of fuels can be more highly developed and become available and economical, coal production may be our fallback electrical source. In the mean time, science will continue to work at finding safer, cleaner ways to use it.

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