Coal is estimated to provide almost 30% of the world’s electricity needs, however it is also responsible for being the primary contributor of global warming. In the United States alone, utility coal plants emitted a total of 1.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2)1 in 2011, which therefore plays a major role in the rise in the amount of greenhouse gas emissions and subsequent increased air pollution occurring around the world.
As if its contribution to CO2 production was not enough, the production and combustion of coal is also associated with increased production including sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter, mercury, lead, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, arsenic and other toxic byproducts1.
Harmful gases such as CO2 have poorly defined lifetimes when present in the atmosphere, which is a direct result of the inability of gases to be destroyed over time. As a result, gases are capable of moving through the world’s oceans, atmospheres and lands, exerting its deleterious effects to many microorganisms, plants and animals2.
The environmental impact of CO2 and other contributing pollutants within the atmosphere have influenced governmental agencies around the world, such as the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to update regulations and develop plans to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are produced each year.
Renewable energy sources also play an important role in helping to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that enter our environment. Through their regenerative properties, the utilization of renewable energy sources such as hydropower, wind, solar and biomass energy reduces the demand of fossil fuel energy3.
While the promise of these types of alternative energy options are hopeful for the future of the environment, these options are generally more expensive to produce than traditional energy sources such as coal. Aside from the cost of operating such systems, it is also unlikely that the solar and wind energy industries, for example, will grow fast enough to meet the world’s energy needs anytime soon either.
These economical problems, combined with the fact that the destruction that climate change is ensuing upon the landscape and animals of the world, provide for a very bleak future in regards to the current detrimental relationship existing between energy use and air pollution.
As a result of this present dilemma, industries such as the Research and Development team at United States’ Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Fossil Energy has focused their energies on developing advanced techniques to increase the efficiency of the existing energy systems while also reducing the harmful emissions associated with its use.4 Through this clean coal research initiative, the DOE is hoping to allow for coal to remain an active and clean energy option in our society.
Several different programs within this sector of the DOE are committed to reducing the amounts of SO2, NOx, and mercury products that derive from coal utility plants. For example, the Carbon Capture Program has two primary research areas of focus, of which include post-combustion capture and pre-combustion capture.
The concept of carbon capture has even found use in large-scale industrial projects, which have even been able to convert the capture CO2 into useful products such as cement, fertilizers, fuel and plastics5. Industries are also placing the released CO2 in a variety of different storage systems in order to further understand how CO2 functions within the environment. TO do so, researchers are able to place CO2 in a variety of different geologic formations including oil and gas reservoirs, coal bed methane and saline formations6.
While access to electricity has become a norm in the society of most countries around the world, an estimated 16% of the world’s population, which accounts for more than 21.2 billion people, still did not have access to electricity in 20167.
As people are able to receive increasing access to electricity, the use for coal will most likely remain one of the world’s lowest-cost electrical power sources for the foreseeable future. While renewable energy sources seem impractical alternatives for “the average Joe,” the industrial interest in converting the previous liability of CO2 emission into a new asset provides a small amount of hope into the future of our planet8.
- "Coal Power: Air Pollution." Union of Concerned Scientists. Web. http://www.ucsusa.org/clean-energy/coal-and-other-fossil-fuels/coal-air-pollution#.WN2SfleTTww.
- "Overview of Greenhouse Gases." EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 14 Feb. 2017. Web. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases#carbon-dioxide.
- "Renewable Energy Sources." Energy Information Administration. Web. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/?page=renewable_home.
- “Clean Coal Research.” Department of Energy, http://www.energy.gov/fe/science-innovation/clean-coal-research.
- “Energy Access Database.” WEO.
- “Carbon Storage R&D.” Department of Energy, http://www.energy.gov/fe/science-innovation/carbon-capture-and-storage-research/carbon-storage-rd.
- “Carbon Capture and Storage from Industrial Sources.” Department of Energy. http://www.energy.gov/fe/science-innovation/carbon-capture-and-storage-research/carbon-capture-and-storage-industrial.
- Brady, Jeff. “Climate-Friendly Coal Technology Works But Is Proving Difficult To Scale Up.” NPR, NPR. www.npr.org/2017/03/29/521926674/climate-friendly-coal-technology-works-but-is-proving-difficult-to-scale-up.