December 3, 2007 4:00 AM PST

FAQ: All about coal--a necessary evil

FAQ: All about coal--a necessary evil
Related Stories

The public face of nuclear power in the U.S.

October 11, 2007
Related Blogs

Peak oil projections from Chevron's CTO

October 24, 2007
Coal is a major source of air pollution, mining accidents, and environmental damage. Unfortunately, we can't live without it.

The coal question remains perhaps the largest and most difficult issue in the clean-tech and energy world. Proponents of solar, wind, and even nuclear power tout themselves as cleaner and safer alternatives. Environmental activists and many scientists also warn that "clean coal" technologies will only dupe the public into a false sense of security.

On the other hand, coal use continues to climb, particularly in China. Clean coal technologies, along with carbon capture and sequestration, may be the only practical way to adapt to climate change. The profits, moreover, are potentially massive.

"Clean coal is the biggest opportunity" in clean tech, said Stephan Dolezalek, a partner at VantagePoint Venture Partners earlier this year. "If you can solve that problem, it will be bigger than Google."

What are those opportunities? They are mostly on the drawing board now. Here's a primer on the basics of coal:

Q: How much coal is there?
Approximately 998 billion tons of recoverable coal sits underground, according to a 2006 estimate from the International Energy Agency. The U.S. has the most, with 268 billion tons, followed by Russia (173 billion tons), China (126 billion tons) and India (102 billion tons). The four collectively hold 67 percent of the recoverable reserves.

In 2006, 1,438 U.S. mines produced 1.163 billion short tons of coal, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, a 2.8 percent increase from the year before. A short ton is 2,000 pounds.

A ton of coal, depending on the grade, has as much heat energy (25 million BTUs) as 4.5 barrels of oil (PDF). There are probably only 1.9 trillion barrels of conventional oil left for human consumption, and not all of it can be recovered. Thus, there's more than twice as much coal out there than oil.

How fast is demand growing?
Steadily, but ominously. Coal accounted for 26 percent of energy consumed in 2004 worldwide, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, and will grow to 28 percent by 2030. Total energy consumption, however, will be going up a few percentage points a year, so in that same period of time, coal consumption will rise a whopping 74 percent, form 114.4 quadrillion BTUs to 199 quadrillion BTUs.

India and China will account for 72 percent of the increase, but coal consumption is expected to also rise in Russia, South Africa, and the U.S. The U.S. is something of a wild card. With carbon taxes and more alternative energy, the growth could decline, but coal will still be a big part of the energy profile.

Photos: Coal addiction

"Ninety percent of the fossil fuel reserves in the U.S., India, and China are in coal, and China and India are not going to move from this fuel in the future," said Jeremy Carl, a research fellow in the program for Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University. "They are not going to turn off the lights."

China last year erected 90 gigawatts' worth of coal plants last year alone, Carl noted. That's bigger than the electrical grid of the U.K.

Where does it get used?
Primarily in electrical power plants. In the United States, roughly 1.03 billion tons of the 1.1 billion tons of coal consumed (PDF) in 2006 got gobbled up by power plants. Coal accounted for 49 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. in 2006, a slight decline from 2005 due in part to warmer temperatures. (Nuclear power was second, with about 20.2 percent, while natural gas clocked in at 18.8 percent. Solar and wind barely account for 2.4 percent.)

How does coal affect pollution?
Coal accounted for 39 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in 2004 (behind oil) but is expected to pass oil for the No. 1 spot in 2010, according to the EIA. Even if the United States were to replace every incandescent bulb in the country with compact fluorescents, the benefits would be eradicated by the carbon dioxide from two coal-fired plants over a year, said Ed Mazria, founder of Architecture 2030. The nonprofit encourages builders, suppliers, and architects to move toward making carbon neutral buildings by 2030.

"The only fossil fuel that can fuel global warming is coal. If you stop coal, you stop global warming. End of story," Mazria said.

Other pollutants include nitrogen compounds, sulfur, aluminum, silicon, and even trace amounts of radioactive materials like uranium. China has banned the use of coal burners in homes in cities like Beijing, but coal pollution remains a large health hazard in the country.

Environmental and health problems include acid rain, polluted water systems, stripped forests, and mining hazards. Deaths attributed to coal range from several hundred to several thousand a year, depending on who does the counting and which respiratory deaths get attributed to coal.

How much does it cost?
In the early '70s, natural gas was a cheaper source for generating electricity, but coal surpassed it in 1976 and has been at the bottom ever since. In 2005, generating a million BTUs from coal cost $1.54, compared with $8.20 for natural gas. Coal prices are rising, but so is the cost of everything else. Solar thermal plants, which generate electricity with heat from the sun, are approaching the cost of natural gas plants.

CONTINUED: How can coal be cleaned up?…
Page 1 | 2 | 3

See more CNET content tagged:
coal, BTU, ton, China, India


Join the conversation!
Add your comment
airblown IGCC can now agressively go forward
Well, if this is true.......
"Clean coal is the biggest opportunity" in clean tech, said Stephan Dolezalek, a partner at VantagePoint Venture Partners earlier this year. "If you can solve that problem, it will be bigger than Google."
...............then I invite all people to my site to see how to do it, and to team up to make it happen on an ASAP basis. Since we will need a lot more electricity to power vehicles, we must focus on getting IGCC working with the least-cost air-blown approach (the Japanese are doing air-blown), which will enable 50% more power from the same coal used.

Due to the ?hot-gas-recirculation? feature of this breakthrough gasifier IP, the widest possible range of solid fuel quality, even wet fuels, can be used with little efficiency disadvantage. Plus, there?s better integration of the gasifier vessels within the IGCC steam system to further simplify the process, maximize efficiency and eliminate refractory from all vessels (a reliability issue).

Furthermore, CO2 sequestration is not an issue as I just hit upon some key data that shows temperature trends have not changed a bit since the 80% emissions increase starting about 1970 (see my gasification blog at and my blog that CO2 is not causing global warming (I?m not saying warming isn?t happening, just that CO2 isn?t causing it, and this issue has virtually stopped aggressive air-blown IGCC development in the US, now we an go forward with a clear conscience). With that much CO2 emissions increase and absolutely no change in temperature trends means CO2 is not a casual variable. And if we can?t believe real data trends, what can we believe in? It?s time to get to work and make air-blown IGCC pay the clean-coal dividends we know are there. To make it happen fast, that takes risk-taking private investment.
Posted by Lloyd Weaver (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
in my humble opinion

"clean coal" is only the latest boodoggle being manufactured and created by
the corporate/government power structure to soak the middle class.
Contrary to a barage of statements by govt. officials and repeated in the media,
there is no scientific proof that global warming was caused by human activity.
furthermore, current evidence strongly suggests that the "global warming" bubble has burst and the earth is coming into a cooling trend, perhaps dramatic, perhaps as frightening as a little ice age.

consider, for a parallel, those stupid neon lightbulbs which are being foist upon us
to replace incandescents: they cost us ten times as much money to purchase
and they contain all sorts of esoteric, dangerous, polluting, toxic metals
which will cost 10 times as much to dispose of properly or else will
further poison the environment.

In any case, Chinese and Indian officials are not likely to comply,
so the huge profit and cost will have no material impact on our atmosphere.
Posted by chistletoe (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Why not use biocoal? It's got the same energy density as coal and can be handled and pulverized exactly the same. I am developing a project to produce it from agave biomass (35+ tonnes of biocoal per hectare per year) and will sell it at a lower price than coal, making it very attractive for electricity generating facilities and heavy industries. With the cap and trade system around the corner, it will be a great business (The US carbon market will reach 2T USD in the near future).

Biomass derived biofuels (syngas, biooil, biocoal) can substitute fossil fuels not only at electric generating facilities and industry, but also in transportation, at a lower cost (in all of them) and without polluting and warming our beloved planet.

Agave grows in marginal land (semiarid and Mediterranean climates), thrives with no watering nor agrochemicals, is easy to cultivate at a very low cost of prodf
uction. I am trying to start plantations in Texas and California, the 1st and 2nd largest GHG emission States in the USA. Then, I will go to China and India.

Agave produces 3X more sugars than sugarcane, 4X more cellulose than the fastest growing eucalyptus and captures 5X more CO2 than the GMO poplar tree or 15X more than pines.

Arturo Velez
Posted by Agavelez (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
"clean coal" It is the only way to make gas from coal.
Posted by ekirinne (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag

Join the conversation

Add your comment

The posting of advertisements, profanity, or personal attacks is prohibited. Click here to review our Terms of Use.

What's Hot



RSS Feeds

Add headlines from CNET News to your homepage or feedreader.