Fossil Fuel Fundamentals – Coal

by Mark Lovett on February 21, 2010

The heavy use of oil and gas based products to heat our homes and fuel our transportation infrastructure has captured much of the media attention in recent years, but increasingly the spotlight has been directed on the use of coal with respect to the generation of electricity.

An article on Planet Earth Fundamentals lead to a follow up post titled Fossil Fuel Fundamentals – Oil. As opposed to a liquid that is pumped from the ground and refined into various products before use, coal is first mined (underground or surface removal) then burned to power our homes and factories.

Strip Coal Mining Operation

While we appreciate having the lights on, and powering our appliances and machinery, we pay a high price by burning coal to do so.  According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, this is the impact of an average coal-fire power plant. (There are more than 600 coal-fired plants in the United States!)

A typical 500-megawatt coal-fired power plant draws about 2.2 billion gallons of water each year from nearby water bodies, such as lakes, rivers, or oceans, to create steam for turning its turbines.

This is enough water to support a city of approximately 250,000 people.

  • 3,700,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary human cause of global warming–as much carbon dioxide as cutting down 161 million trees.
  • 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2), which causes acid rain that damages forests, lakes, and buildings, and forms small airborne particles that can penetrate deep into lungs.
  • 500 tons of small airborne particles, which can cause chronic bronchitis, aggravated asthma, and premature death, as well as haze obstructing visibility.
  • 10,200 tons of nitrogen oxide (NOx), as much as would be emitted by half a million late-model cars. NOx leads to formation of ozone (smog) which inflames the lungs, burning through lung tissue making people more susceptible to respiratory illness.
  • 720 tons of carbon monoxide (CO), which causes headaches and place additional stress on people with heart disease.
  • 220 tons of hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds (VOC), which form ozone.
  • 170 pounds of mercury, where just 1/70th of a teaspoon deposited on a 25-acre lake can make the fish unsafe to eat.
  • 225 pounds of arsenic, which will cause cancer in one out of 100 people who drink water containing 50 parts per billion.
  • 114 pounds of lead, 4 pounds of cadmium, other toxic heavy metals, and trace amounts of uranium.

Unregulated Coal Ash Site


China Leads in Coal Pollution

Sixteen of the 20 worst cities in the world for air pollution are in China; acid rain falls on 30% of the country; and more than a quarter of the land is subject to desertification—an area that increases by 2,000 sq km every year. Bryan Walsh, Time Asia, November 17, 2003

Doug Kanter for The New York Times

China now uses more coal than the United States, Europe and Japan combined, making it the world’s largest emitter of gases that are warming the planet.

But by continuing to rely heavily on coal, which supplies 80 percent of its electricity, China ensures that it will keep emitting a lot of carbon dioxide; even an efficient coal-fired power plant emits twice the carbon dioxide of a natural gas-fired plant. The New York Times By Keith Bradsher, May 10, 2009

Moving to renewable sources of energy could reduce the harm caused by coal!

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Thermal Oxidizers February 24, 2010 at 10:00 am

I agree with xchngcoef, and will add that creativity and entrepreneurship will be critical in finding sustainable energy alternatives. I don’t think we’ve seen the big idea yet, but we need it to turn the momentum towards green(er) technologies.

Great blog!

Reply

Global Patriot February 24, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Entrepreneurship is the most important part of the solution, as it will take creative ideas to come up with new technology that serves mankind yet is also sustainable.

Reply

Thermal Oxidizers February 24, 2010 at 6:00 pm

I agree with xchngcoef, and will add that creativity and entrepreneurship will be critical in finding sustainable energy alternatives. I don’t think we’ve seen the big idea yet, but we need it to turn the momentum towards green(er) technologies.

Great blog!

Reply

GlobalPatriot February 25, 2010 at 12:19 am

Entrepreneurship is the most important part of the solution, as it will take creative ideas to come up with new technology that serves mankind yet is also sustainable.

Reply

xchngcoef February 22, 2010 at 9:48 am

It is good to have some quantification of the output of coal plants other than their power and the summary in this article may be useful if the numbers are realistic. They did leave out the quantity of coal ash that has to be dumped somewhere.

What is needed is leadership that determines what can be done by what time and how much is needed and how are we going to get there. Regardless of whether you believe human activity is largely responsible for climate change or are concerned with the emissions from fossil fuel plants, the planet will run out of fossil fuels and it is going to take a long time to replace them. Also, everyone is going to be part of the solution, not just the US, or western countries, or First World countries.

Reply

Global Patriot February 24, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Coal ash is something that I would like to cover in a subsequent post, as it is one of the issues central to the use of coal as an energy source. And you’re so right about everyone needing to be part of the solution…it won’t be solved by governments or corporations alone.

Reply

xchngcoef February 22, 2010 at 5:48 pm

It is good to have some quantification of the output of coal plants other than their power and the summary in this article may be useful if the numbers are realistic. They did leave out the quantity of coal ash that has to be dumped somewhere.

What is needed is leadership that determines what can be done by what time and how much is needed and how are we going to get there. Regardless of whether you believe human activity is largely responsible for climate change or are concerned with the emissions from fossil fuel plants, the planet will run out of fossil fuels and it is going to take a long time to replace them. Also, everyone is going to be part of the solution, not just the US, or western countries, or First World countries.

Reply

GlobalPatriot February 25, 2010 at 12:18 am

Coal ash is something that I would like to cover in a subsequent post, as it is one of the issues central to the use of coal as an energy source. And you’re so right about everyone needing to be part of the solution…it won’t be solved by governments or corporations alone.

Reply

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