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This article is the fifth in a six-part series that explores how we get our electrical energy and what we have to learn about how renewable — and non-renewable — electrical energy is generated.
Electricity use is a serious element of Americans’ ecological footprint. But we are likely to pay it much less consideration than different areas, like recycling and plastic use, the place it looks like now we have extra management.
After all, we will’t store for electrical utilities the way in which we do web suppliers. Yet it’s essential to grasp the place your power comes from and the way it impacts your ecological footprint.
Coal is probably the most iconic supply of energy for many individuals. In precise observe, reliance on coal varies widely all through the United States. A number of areas, like Long Island and elements of Hawaii and Alaska, are utterly coal-free. However, elements of the Midwest draw greater than half of their electrical energy — as much as 61.5% — from coal vegetation.
Despite super progress in renewable energy over the previous decade, fossil fuels — pure fuel and coal — nonetheless present the vast majority of electrical energy within the United States. With coal manufacturing at a 55-year low, it’s now our third-largest supply of electrical energy, producing 19.3% of the nation’s energy general.
Coal has a long history of use. Originally, coal was a direct power supply, discovered on or close to the earth’s floor. It was burned in fireplaces in historic Rome and in Hopi ovens in what would ultimately grow to be the American Southwest.
During the industrial revolution, coal was used to energy giant furnaces and steam engines, necessitating deeper and extra harmful coal mines. Coal manufacturing jumped from 10 million tons in 1800 to 250 million tons in 1900. Employment within the coal business peaked in 1924 and, with the exceptions of WWII and the 1973 power disaster, has dropped constantly ever since.
As of 2021, American coal mines make use of roughly 39,500 people.
How Coal Power Works
Coal is a flamable sedimentary rock-like materials made principally of carbon and hydrocarbons. Like fossils, every bit of coal started as residing vegetation or animals and was remodeled by pure forces. Coal varieties when peat bogs are coated by layers of rock and grime, leading to super strain and warmth. Over tons of of tens of millions of years, these forces rework the natural materials into coal.
There are 4 major varieties of coal, which type beneath totally different quantities of strain. They are recognized by carbon content material. From highest to lowest carbon they’re anthracite, bituminous, subituminous, and lignite. Higher coal content material equals larger saved power, however all 4 sorts of coal can be utilized to generate electrical energy.
In a coal-fired energy plant, coal is pulverized and the ensuing coal powder is burned in a furnace. The warmth generated within the furnace converts water into steam. The steam rotates a turbine, which spins a generator to provide electrical energy. Except for the warmth supply, a coal energy plant operates the identical method as a nuclear power plant or another thermal energy station.
Environmental Impacts of Coal Production
Although all thermal energy stations generate electrical energy the identical method, the warmth supply provides them every a novel environmental impression. For coal, these impacts are important. Coal is a nonrenewable, nonsustainable power supply as a result of as soon as it’s extracted and burned, it can’t be changed on a human time scale.
The extraction of coal causes severe environmental injury. The picture of Appalachian coal miners tunneling underground is extra historic than correct to as we speak’s practices. In Appalachia, floor mining, most notably mountaintop removal, is now extra frequent than underground mining. The environmental impact of Appalachian coal mining is sort of inconceivable; the topography of mined areas is totally altered, with mountainous slopes actually flattened and valleys full of 600 ft of rubble, contaminating floor water and shifting its hydrology and pH.
However, Appalachia is now not the middle of U.S. coal mining. Despite latest shutdowns, the largest producer of coal within the U.S. is Wyoming. The mines there are floor mines (also called strip mines). Some of this mining takes place on federal lands.
Environmental Impacts of Coal Power
Burning coal produces more than 80 poisonous pollutants that generate smog and acid rain and may trigger respiratory sickness. Mercury and different heavy metals are additionally launched. Fly ash and backside ash (that are additionally created by waste incineration) are doubtlessly harmful byproducts as properly, though these are actually captured for storage reasonably than launched via smokestacks.
The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts have each been efficient in requiring coal energy vegetation to enhance environmental efficiency through the use of low-sulfur coal and scrubbing flue fuel. But coal continues to be removed from clear. Many energy vegetation nonetheless don’t use the air pollution controls known as for in environmental laws. Accurate knowledge on energy plant emissions shouldn’t be available (yet).
One study concluded that air air pollution from electrical energy era results in about 16,000 untimely deaths every year within the continental U.S., with 91% of these attributable to coal-fired energy vegetation. According to the business’s personal knowledge, groundwater close to nearly every coal plant within the U.S. has unsafe ranges of coal ash-related pollution reminiscent of arsenic and heavy metals.
Once thought-about innocent, carbon dioxide is now understood to be the first greenhouse fuel emitted by human exercise. Combustion of coal within the United States generated 1.32 million metric tons of CO2 in 2017. Together with pure fuel, coal energy is answerable for one-third of the nation’s carbon emissions.
Although typically used to explain coal vegetation that meet the requirements of the Clean Air and Water Acts, the time period clean coal typically refers to coal vegetation that seize carbon dioxide emissions for burial underground reasonably than releasing them into the air the place they contribute to local weather change. There is just one such plant in operation within the U.S. to this point.
Fortunately, many power firms like Pacific Gas and Electric Company and Puget Sound Energy permit clients to choose into neighborhood renewable applications that present a greener power combine. Contact your native utility supplier to seek out out if such a program is on the market the place you reside.
No matter what your power supply, probably the most sustainable selection is to make use of much less of it. If you aren’t certain the place you can enhance, begin with a home energy audit and prioritize changes primarily based on the outcomes. Many native utility firms even have efficiency programs to assist clients cut back their power use.
Originally printed on January 30, 2020, this text was up to date in December 2022.