Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Coal - A Viable Energy Solution

Although coal is not used nowadays to heat up homes and factories, its use is wholly similar to what it has been over the generations - as fuel. Only this time, coal is used for the generation of electricity, which is then transmitted over power lines to heat up homes and factories, and in ways too several to count. Even in this nuclear age, coal accounts for 49% of all the electricity generated in the United States, and for 40% of worldwide production.

The expenditure of coal to produce electricity is a simply recent development in the history of use of coal. From the prehistoric times when early humans found that certain black rocks could burn, to the Hopi Indians during the 1300s using coal for cooking, heating and pottery, to the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s fuelled by coal and steam engines, coal has been an integral part of human development over millennia.

In spite of the emergence of new technologies, coal as an energy solution is definitely an attractive proposition for the future, provided certain measures are taken to clean up the processes. We present here some of the pros and cons of coal as an energy solution:

Pros

1. Availability - The biggest benefit coal has as an energy solution is its existence. In 2006, the United States Energy Information Administration published figures of 930 billion short tons of recoverable coal reserves in the world. Of these, the United States has the maximum share of 27%.

At present levels of extraction and consumption, these should last more than 130 years. Even considering increasing rates of consumption of around 2-3% annually, the reserves should last more than half a century. Moreover, it is easier to determine their locations and extract the mineral using existing technologies than with other energy sources.

2. Price - Coal is one of the cheapest energy sources accessible. In addition to its abundance, the method for generating electricity from coal is cheaper than alternatives like nuclear and hydroelectric power. Although these alternatives may be less costly in the long run, they require huge initial investments.

3. Safety - As compared to nuclear power, thermal power or electricity generated from coal is considered much safer. Accidents at thermal plants won't cause as expansive incident as the Chernobyl disaster.

Cons

1. Acid rain - Coal has a lot of impurities like sulphur and nitrogen compounds which are released into the atmosphere on burning. In combination with water vapor, they cause acid rain that is harmful to plants and animals.

2. Global warming - Coal is a form of carbon, which on burning produces carbon dioxide (CO2). CO2 is a potent gas that, when present in the atmosphere, traps terrestrial radiation and heats up the earth in a circumstance known as global warming. This has long-term effects on weather and biodiversity.

Various steps are being taken to address these two issues. Today, with current technology, it is possible to filter out 99% of the tiny particles and remove more than 95% of the acid rain pollutants in coal. Clean coal technologies are here to stay.

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