Coal continues to be a popular energy source in many countries around the world. There are two main reasons for this: one is that there is plenty of coal still available and the second reason is that, at least among fossil fuels, it is the cheapest available.
Because other fossil fuels are not as plentiful as coal they also tend to be a lot more expensive by comparison. This is already one of the main advantages of using coal energy but there also plenty of others. Having said all that, there are also quite a few disadvantages to the use of coal energy.
Human beings have relied on coal energy for hundreds of years.
The Use of Coal Energy
Historians and archaeologists have found plenty of evidence to suggest that coal has been used as an energy source since the time of ancient civilizations. For example, it is well known that the Romans used it but also ancient Chinese civilizations.
The use of coal as an energy source, however, only became generalized, as we know it today, during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The invention that was responsible for the increased use of coal energy was the steam engine. The steam engine was solely powered by coal energy. But apart from the steam engine, the increased use of coal was also due to new machines used in manufacturing.
Coal was not the only energy source that saw increased usage due to the Industrial Revolution. It would be more accurate to consider the increased use of coal as part of a more general increase use of fossil fuels. In fact, coal comes second to petroleum.
In the 21st century has seen the increase of coal energy consumption as more countries have become heavily industrialized. India and China are now big consumers of coal and other fossil fuels.
One of the main reasons why coal energy is so prominent in so many different world regions is because coal is actually available on every continent.
What Are The Main Pros Of Coal?
Although we have already pointed out some of the main advantages of using coal energy, there are many others. So, let us now look at all of them in more detail.
- Widely available
- Infrastructure in place
- Reliable energy source
- Low capital investment to mine
The first advantage of coal is that it is widely available, which is also what makes it relatively cheap particularly when compared to other fossil fuels.
But the price is not the main part of that advantage. No, the main part of that advantage is that there is plenty of coal available. And while there is a lot of it which has already been extracted, there also huge amounts in the mines around the world that have not been extracted yet.
Another important advantage of this kind of energy is that the infrastructure necessary to produce and transport coal energy is already in place. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, this infrastructure has been available in the so-called industrialized world for over a hundred years.
But we need to emphasize the importance of the low cost of coal. Coal is so affordable that virtually everyone would be able to get it. But not only is it cheap per ton, also a ton could produce a lot more energy than the same amount of any other fossil fuel.
If you are wondering about clear renewal sources of energy such as wind or solar power, coal has an advantage over those too. Because, although coal has more emissions and is, therefore, a bigger polluter than those energy sources, coal is more reliable. Why? Because it does not rely on the weather or other external conditions. So you never need to wait for it, either.
But if you are concerned about the environment, coal is not the polluter it once was. Thanks to new technologies, a big amount of the emissions produced by coal can now be captured. This has two main benefits: the obviously lessened environmental impact but also the easier maintenance of all the infrastructure involved.
The final advantage of using coal is that it can be easily converted into different fuels. When coal is converted into liquid or gas form it becomes a lot cleaner.
What Are The Main Cons Of Coal?
Obviously, there are also a few disadvantages to coal.
- Negative environmental impact
- One of the highest CO2 emitters per unit energy
- Health risks due to inhalation and harmful chemicals
- Finite supply
- Requires transportation of coal to processing plants
- Produces radiation
The main disadvantage of using coal is that mining is the only way to obtain it. And mining has a profoundly negative effect on the local environment and the natural habitat.
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Apart from the more obvious harmful effects of coal mining, the release of harmful substances such as sulfur dioxide, arsenic, mercury, among others should be taken into account. There is also a risk that miners might inhale these harmful gases inadvertently.
But, how about clean coal? While clean coal technologies are available there are not cheap. They can bring the cost of coal considerably. So, an individual consumer looking to use clean coal will not get it as cheaply as if they wanted to use “unclean” coal.
There is also a very real risk that coal may cause death due to accidental inhalation. This is a potential risk for consumers so safety should be considered carefully.
Although many people may not realize this, coal power plants produce radiation, which may then increase the risk of lung cancer or asthma in the local population.
The last advantage of coal is that it is an energy source that is stuck in the past. Human beings started using it when there was very little knowledge (or none) or other clear and more efficient sources of energy.