Coal is one of the most important sources of energy for mankind providing an easy way to generate energy in a cheap manner. The relative abundance and low costs of using Coal has made it the the first choice of Fuel for building Power Plants in the world. Coal has huge importance as an Energy source and forms the most important raw material for Cement and Steel. Coal is also used in a variety of other industries like Paper, Aluminum, Chemical, Transportation and Pharma. However Coal also has huge negative consequences as it is the largest source of Carbon Emissions which happen during Coal Combustion.
Coal Mining despite two hundred years remain as hazardous as ever resulting in thousands of deaths in India and China. Mercury, Arsenic and pollution of other harmful substances into the environment causes diseases and many deaths as well. However for countries like India and China there are little other alternatives and there is no conviction amongst policymakers to change their energy strategies as well. So the advantages of Coal are currently overpowering those of the Cons of Coal. This despite Coal being the dirtiest form of Energy and causing many deaths globally. The main reason for the cheapness of Coal is that the societal costs are not added on explicitly to the Price of Coal making it seem artificially cheap.
Advantages of Coal
1) Abundance – Coal is located almost universally, it can be found on every continent in over 70 countries, with the biggest reserves in the USA, Russia, China and India.
2) Continuous,Predictable,Reliable Source of Power – Coal Based Energy can be generated almost 24×7 unlike other forms of renewable energy like wind and solar that are intermittent in nature.
3) Low Capital Investment - The capital investment required for Coal based Power plants is relatively less at $1-2/watt of Thermal Capacity. Note wind energy is slightly higher while Solar is even higher. Coal Mines are also quite cheap to build and Mine with Open Cast Mines providing Coal at a very Low Cost.
4) Low Cost – Coal is one of the cheapest forms of energy making it the energy of choice in developing countries like India and China. In India its possible to get cheap coal at just $20/ton while international prices of coal range in the region of $100/ton. Note Coal based electricity can be produced at 2-4c/Kwh making it the cheapest electricity source.
5) High Load Factor - Thermal Power Plants have very high load factors in excess of 80%. They can generate power almost 24/7 and only require shutdown for periodic maintenance. Coal Based Plants which have become too old or have been shutdown due to environmental concerns can still be used for backup power.
6) Large Potential compared to Oil – Coal Energy Potential is quite large compared to other Fossil Fuels like Oil and Gas. Coal Reserves globally are estimated to be around 1 trillion tons which implies that Coal can be consumed at the current rates for another 200 years.
7) Big Industrial Base - Coal Energy has been present since the start of the Industrial Revolution with the development of the Steam Engine based on Coal. The technology and industry of the Coal Industry and Thermal Power Plants is well developed and mature. This allows a rapid deployment of Coal Power in most places in the world.
8) Coal to Liquids and Coal to Gases - Coal is now being looked upon as source of Transportation Fuels as Oil becomes scarce and increasingly costly. Coal to Liquid Plants are being constructed in India and China though the Technology is quite immature and the use of the technology is still questionable on environmental grounds.
Disadvantages of Coal
1) Greenhouse Gas Emissions - One of the biggest cons of Coal Energy is that it releases Carbon Dioxide which has been sequestered for millions of years in the dead bodies of plant and animals. This transfer the Carbon from the Earth to the Environment leading to the Global Warming Effect. Global Treaties have failed in putting a Cost on this, though individual countries are tying to account for this through Carbon Taxes and Cap and Trade.
2) Coal Mining Deaths - Coal Mining has resulted in thousands of deaths each year ever since man discovered coal. Note Coal Deaths happen not only in countries which don’t have good safety regulations like China but also in developed countries like USA and New Zealand.
3) Devastation of Earth and Scenery Near Coal Mines – Open Cast Mining of Coal has resulted in destruction of the habitat and destruction of the scenery. It leads to removal of trees and pollution of air and water in areas surrounding the mines. Coal Mine Fires have burned for hundreds of year underground and make living in those areas hazardous. Those burning underground can be difficult to locate and many cannot be extinguished. Fires can cause the ground above to subside, their combustion gases are dangerous to life, and breaking out to the surface can initiate surface fires as well.
4) Displacement of Humans due to Mining Destruction - In West Bengal,India people are being displaced in huge numbers as the hollowing of the earth due to underground coal mining has made those places unsafe as the Land Caves in without warning.
5) Emission of Harmful Substances like Sulfur Dioxide,Carbon Monoxide, Mercury, Selenium, Arsenic, Acid Rain - Thermal Plants emit harmful substances such as Mercury and Sulfur Dioxide which cause health hazards among the surrounding population and Acid Rain. While modern equipment has reduced the emission of these harmful substances, it is still very harmful to humans.