Coal plants are cleaner than they used to be–up to 77% cleaner, depending on how it’s measured–and the EPA in the U.S. is fighting to get them to be even cleaner. Coal mining is safer than it used to be–and we’re fighting to make it even safer.
But coal mining still produces mercury, which is really a poison. It still produces fly ash, which is not only unhealthy in the air, but gets stacked up in dumps that are not stable–too many of them end up sliding into rivers and streams. It is still dangerous. Too many miners are killed or injured at work, and too many suffer the aftereffects long after they’ve left the mines.
We use a lot of coal in the United States. It is burnt as the fuel providing about 45% of our electricity. Our environmental standards, while not the best in the world, are good at trying to limit the damage caused by our need for coal. But these environmental standards carry their own cost, and that cost is borne by both government and industry.
In developing countries the need for fuel is growing so quickly that they haven’t had the time to develop standards to protect their citizenry from the effects of pollution and lax safety rules. Coal is a big part of their fuel mix and that’s only going to grow. China, which is looking everywhere for energy solutions, is serious about going green, building wind and solar and nuclear as quickly as it feasibly can. But their dependence on coal will be ongoing throughout the century.
Old King Coal supplies about 21% of America’s energy needs overall. It supplies about 69% of China’s. And whereas America’s future energy growth will be moderate, China’s will be explosive. I have calculated here that their energy consumption will grow from 100 quads to 247 quads by 2030. And their use of coal will grow from 69% to 70% over that time. The same is likely to hold true throughout Asia, as quickly developing countries latch on to the fuel that has the least expensive sticker price.
But even to the extent that they are aware of the hidden costs of coal, they are for the moment willing to bear the pain associated with mining deaths, mercury in the air and water, etc., etc., as life without adequate energy just isn’t worth living.
So as we move to a future (in 2075) where we are likely to consume six times as much energy as we do today, and most of it will be in developing countries reliant on coal and without the mechanisms to make coal as safe as it is here, I guess the only silver lining is that the U.S. is focusing on an industry sector that will be hugely relevant to the people undergoing this dramatic transformation: