Energy Matters: How cool is coal?
It’s interesting to try and imagine how our children will explain to their grandchildren what it was about burning coal that inspired such fierce allegiance even after we already had less expensive alternatives. Sure, it fueled the industrial revolution-we’ll give it that glory-but what, besides nostalgia for those coal-fired locomotive trains maybe, could it be? Spoiler alert: you won’t find out the answer here, because we really don’t know.
Coal’s un-glorious features are manifold and varied: environmental destruction from mining, mine-workers’ lung diseases, greenhouse gas emissions from mines, greenhouse gas emissions from coal-burning, public health impacts of coal burning, health and environmental impacts of coal industry waste, to name the obvious ones.
Let’s start with the mines. Underground mines were responsible for 8% of U.S. methane emissions in 2019 (U.S. Energy Information Administration). Surface mines strip the landscape completely to reveal the veins of coal under the earth’s surface. In areas like the Appalachian Mountains, whole mountain tops are simply blown up and removed to get to the coal, and everything downhill is transformed just as much, defying any attempt at adequate description. Mining also contaminates groundwater with the various chemicals and minerals it dislodges.
Then of course there’s the burning. Emissions from burning coal include SO2, NO2, and particulates, all of which cause respiratory illness, acid rain, and/or smog; mercury and other heavy metals are also sent skyward, despite forced improvements thanks to the Clean Air and the Clean Water Acts. Carbon dioxide is of course the main combustion emissions concern, as coal is responsible for 39% of global CO2 emissions (The World Counts). And no, carbon capture technology does not exist commercially now or any time soon.
How about the worldwide public health impact on the general population from burning the coal? According to a 2021 study by the non-profit Health Effects Institute, coal was responsible for half of the 1 million deaths annually caused by fossil fuel combustion worldwide (ArsTechnica.com, 12/16/21).
Well, how about the jobs? Maybe they’re really great? In the 1800s, doctors were finally able to document the cause and effect relationship between mining and a lung ailment familiar to miners since the 1600s. It took until 1969 for the coal industry to acknowledge that black lung disease was attributable to coal, having tried every conceivable angle to deny it (Center for Public Integrity).
Corporate resistance to worker protection continues with coal mining’s waste stream. Coal ash, containing concentrated toxins like arsenic, cadmium, silica, radon, radioactive radium, and mercury, is one of the largest volume waste products in the U.S. A recent AP article published by SunMedia (5/31/22) spotlighted the inability of former coal ash removal workers to receive any compensation for severe job-related health impacts after a decade of legal action. Their deadly work had involved cleaning up the results of the 2008 rupture of a Kentucky dam holding 3.4 million cubic yards of coal ash sludge – the largest industrial disaster in U.S. history.
Incidentally, there are 1,400 other unlined coal ash sludge holding facilities around the country with no apparent plan for safe disposal, thus forming a threat to surrounding communities and their ecology for the indefinite future.
If it’s jobs we are worried about, shouldn’t we be asking, “How many?” Currently, 38,199 people are employed in the Coal Mining industry in the U.S. (Coal Mining in the US – Employment Statistics | IBISWorld.) In contrast, the 2020 National Solar Jobs Census counted 231,474 solar jobs in the U.S. (National Solar Jobs Census 2020 | SEIA .) Both wind power and solar power jobs are on a steep increase, while automation and economics are shrinking the coal job force. (For an interesting glimpse at current solar industry job categories and salaries, visit solarpower.guide).
Yes, of course, it would be a challenge to substitute a coal community’s traditional economy (deadly and destructive though it may be) with another industry just out of thin air. But for the moment, let’s just talk about the money. What would it take to replace the income from all the coal jobs in the U.S.? A crude estimate is $2.3 billion annually. According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, of the roughly $20 billion in annual U.S. fossil fuel industry subsidies, 20% ($4 billion) is for the coal industry. Thus by shifting the former coal subsidy dollars ($4 billion) to support displaced coal workers ($2.3 billion), taxpayers could (theoretically) make out ahead!
The clincher: The levelized cost of wind and solar are both currently less than half that of coal (National Renewable Energy Laboratory). Both are projected to continue to decrease, while coal costs will only increase. (These costs will be discussed in another installment).
All this adds up to an obvious conclusion for us. What are we missing? What are the pluses of coal? We need something for our great-grandchildren to cling to when pondering the question of their ancestors’ sanity.
Paul Stancioff, PhD., is Professor Emeritus of physics at UMF. Cynthia Stancioff is a former English major who agitates for climate solutions. Email: [email protected] or [email protected] Previous columns can be found at https://paulandcynthiaenergymatters.blogspot.com/.