In this guide, we list the pros and cons of coal energy.
This guide forms part of a series of guides we have put together outlining the benefits and disadvantages of different energy sources and energy generation methods.
Summary – Coal Energy Pros & Cons
Can be cost effective and provide affordable electricity
Power supply infrastructure established in many cities is currently set up for fossil fuels like coal
Not a variable power source (like solar or wind for example)
May have good power density/power per unit (black coal in particular)
Coal power plants may have a reasonable lifespan
Technology like air filters, and CCS systems can capture air contaminants and emissions from coal combustion
Coal can be converted into different types of fuel
Electricity from coal power plants may sometimes be cheaper in price than electricity from natural gas plants
Provides significant employment and income in major countries like China
Has been, and continues to be a contributor to economic growth for major countries
May help some countries have better energy independence from other countries
Actual air pollution from coal combustion might be lower in some instances than what is reported
Some estimates of mercury emissions from coal may also not be as high as what is reported
Coal waste by-products may sometimes be used for other applications
Although cheap on it’s own, coal may be heavily subsidised (and sometimes protected) in some countries, and this may help keep coal prices competitive
Is considered a scarce resource, and not renewable
Coal supplies at coal plants need to be topped up, unlike some renewable forms of energy
Emits greenhouse gases, and has one of the highest carbon footprints of all energy sources (and can leak methane during extraction at coal mines)
Contributes to outdoor air pollution via the release of various air toxins
Air pollution from coal is estimated to be costly to the health system (and may contribute to health conditions like lung cancer and cardiovascular disease)
Air pollution from burning of coal can contribute to acid rain
Coal mining in some regions might be destructive for the environment, and to local communities
Coal burning might produce radiation
Clean coal might not actually be ‘clean’ in some ways
Carbon capture technology has it’s claimed flaws, and may add to the cost of coal energy and electricity
‘Clean coal’ technology research and development is claimed to have cost a lot of money over the last few decades
Some ‘Clean Coal’ technology isn’t always effective
Brown coal may be an inefficient form of energy
Brown coal might be uneconomic to transport long distances
Coal waste like coal ash can build up, and even pollute the environment (it can also be costly to treat and manage coal waste properly)
There may be some issues in trying to commercialise or reuse some coal waste
Thermal coal power plants can use a lot of water for cooling
Some argue that coal power plant licenses that don’t regulate (or restrict) emissions allow investors and plant operators a ‘free pass’ to pollute the environment
Some reports indicate coal as an energy source isn’t suitable for ramping up fast
Coal is cheap, widely available, has infrastructure already in place (for power grids for many cities around the world), and may have a reasonable amount of resources/supplies still left.
It essentially offers a lot of affordable power supply, and has helped build and sustain economies over time.
Several major economies might currently depend on it, and it might currently provide significant social benefits too
Carbon emissions, and the release of air contaminants during combustion might be some major issues (when filters and carbon capturing devices aren’t used at power plants), and the mining of coal might also have negative effects too
Some major countries have started their transition away from coal to other energy sources already, whilst others may still be using coal as a primary energy sources
The information in this guide contains broad generalisations.
Ultimately, each source of energy in each geographic location around the world has it’s own variables to consider, and requires it’s own individual assessment.
How Coal Might Generally Be Used For Energy
The process for using coal for energy – mainly electricity – might generally look as follows:
– Coal is mined/extracted
– Coal is cleaned (to remove unwanted materials) and processed
– After cleaning and processing, coal is transported to coal power plants
– At coal power plants, coal is burnt/combusted to turn water into high pressure steam, and this steam turns a turbine to create electricity
– Electricity is delivered to end consumers
Potential Pros Of Coal Energy
Can Be Cost Effective & Can Provide Affordable Electricity
Coal may usually one of the cheaper or more cost effective forms of energy
This might be because of how energy dense coal is compared to how much it costs per unit of weight.
Brown coal in particular might be cheap in some countries.
Some reports indicate that when subsidies are taken out of calculations, brown coal energy can be about $30 per MWh compared to solar at about $70-$80 per MWh.
Having said this, coal prices can depend on different economic variables, and also variables related to the local and national energy grids, as well as foreign import and export of energy.
Some Estimates Indicate There Is A Reasonable Supply Of Coal Left
According to one estimate, the current stockpiles of coal can provide the world with more than a century of energy, while US-based coal reserves could last over 400 years.
Many Cities’ Current Power Infrastructure Is Set Up For Coal & Fossil Fuels
The existing power grid infrastructure is currently set up for coal and fossil fuel energy in some major countries.
China might be one example of such a country.
Other energy sources like solar and wind for example might currently struggle with issues like energy loss (from installed capacity) due to not having all the right infrastructure set up for it.
Coal Power Is Not Variable Like Some Renewables Can Be
Solar and wind might be two examples of energy sources that can be variable due to their reliance on weather conditions (the sun shining, or the wind blowing)
Coal on the other hand might provide constant energy as long as coal is available to burn at power plants.
There’s additional benefits to a non variable energy source too, such as not requiring energy storage or a backup energy source (which can cost money, and have other drawbacks)
May Have Good Energy Density/Power Per Unit
When measured in gigajoules or microjoules per unit, some reports indicate that coal has good energy density compared to other energy sources
Black coal in particular might have better energy density than brown coal when heated/combusted because it might have less moisture and more carbon
Coal Power Plants May Have A Reasonable Lifespan
Some reports available online indicate that the global average lifespan of a coal power plant before it has to be retired might be anywhere from 30 to 46 years on average
However, this is when they are retired – the design life could be even longer than that
Technology & Devices Exist To Capture Air Contaminants and Emissions From Coal Power Plants
For example, filters (and other devices) can catch air pollutants before they get into the atmosphere
Additionally, carbon capture devices can capture carbon dioxide before it gets into the atmosphere
Carbon storage systems can be used to store carbon underground.
Other CCS technology also exists.
Coal Can Be Converted Into Different Types Of Fuel
Coal is a solid, but it can be converted into a gas, or into a liquid.
A benefit of this might be that coal might burn cleaner than it would if it were being burned in its natural state.
Prices For Electricity From New Coal Power Plants Might Be Cheaper Than Gas Fired Power Plants
[Electricity from] ultra-supercritical coal-power plants … [might] cost about $40-$78 per MWh, while the electricity produced by a gas-fired power plant would cost between $69 and $115 per MWh.
Although, it’s unclear how much these plants would cost, and what any potential subsidies might be that need to be factored into account.
May Provide Significant Employment & Income In Some Countries
Along with the natural gas and oil industries, the coal industry (and it’s related industries) may be responsible for significant employment in some countries
There’s direct employment to consider, but also indirect employment from industries that depend on coal, or consult to the coal industry
Has Helped Grow Economies In The Past & Continues To Do So
Developed countries have benefited immensely from coal energy in the past.
It has been used heavily to grow their economies and help various industrial sectors progress and develop.
May Help Provide Some Level Of Energy Independence For Some Countries
Brown coal in particular may provide a domestic source of energy in some countries, which means these countries aren’t as reliant on a foreign energy supply.
For example, Germany and Poland might both be able to cut their dependence on Russian gas by using their own brown coal
Actual Air Pollution Might Be Lower Than What It Reported In Some Locales
Two examples of this might be in Australia:
… emissions from Victoria’s (in Australia) power stations contributed at one point to less than 1 per cent of total mercury concentrations in the Latrobe Valley (abc.net.au)
Also, the brown coal at Gippsland (Victoria, Australia) is relatively free of sulfur and nitrogen and produces less than 5% by weight of ash (dynamicscience.com.au).
At least in the above examples, coal power stations don’t appear to be making up a large % of the emissions of some air pollutants in certain areas.
Actual Mercury Emissions From Coal May Be Lower Than What Is Reported In Some Locales
Mercury emissions may also be lower in some places, but, it might depend on certain local variables.
Below is an example of a region in Australia where mercury emissions may not be as big of an issue – at least not as big of an issue as some places in the US.
Mercury concentrations in the [Latrobe Valley] region [in Australia] are dominated by the atmospheric background and natural emissions from vegetation, soil and water.
[So, they may not be impacted as much by coal emissions compared to these factors]
Victorian brown coal actually has very little mercury … [and] Australian coal-fired power plants [mercury emissions are] quite low compared to others such as the United States
Coal Waste By-Products Might Sometimes Be Able To Be Used For Other Applications
Coal waste by-products, coal fly ash or bottom ash, and even captured CO2 might be used for:
– Construction/building materials
– Enhanced oil recovery
– Potentially other uses
[Coal waste by products might be used for] bricks, recycled fuel, and a sustainable form of concrete using coal fly ash (sciencedirect.com, and sciencedaily.com)
… coal fly ash and bottom ash [has been used] in building materials (where fly ash can replace cement), [and] gypsum from flue gas desulfurization [has been used too] (world-nuclear.org).
Captured carbon dioxide gas [from coal] can be used for enhanced oil recovery on a commercial basis where the CO2 acts to reduce the viscosity of the oil, enhancing its flow to recovery wells. It is then separated and re-injected (world-nuclear.org)
Potential Cons Of Coal Energy
Although Coal Can Be Cheap, It Might Have Been Heavily Subsidised & Protected In Some Countries
Some reports indicate that coal, natural gas and oil may have been more heavily subsidised and protected in some countries compared to other energy sources.
This might bring into question what the actual price of coal might be in the free market when considering subsidies, protectionism, and the years of development and investment these energy sources have had.
Although, the same argument might be made for other energy sources too.
Getting a true ‘like for like’ cost of different energy sources might be difficult in some ways.
Coal Is Not Considered A ‘Renewable’ Energy Sources – It’s Considered Finite
Coal is considered a finite or scarce energy source.
On the other hand, some energy sources like solar or wind might be considered renewable energy sources.
Coal Plants Need To Re-Stocked With Coal
Coal plants are required to be topped up coal supplies as they burn it for energy.
Compare this to solar energy for example which doesn’t need to be refuelled – the sun is the ‘fuel source’ for solar panels.
Emits Greenhouse Gases, & May Have A High Carbon Footprint Compared To Other Energy Sources
Carbon dioxide is emitted when coal is combusted for fuel, in addition to when coal is mined/extracted
Methane may also be able to leak during extraction at coal mines
Burning coal produces over 14 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year [worldwide] (world-nuclear.org)
May Contribute To Outdoor Air Pollution
The combustion of fossil fuels like coal might be one of the major causes of outdoor air pollution.
Air contaminants like NOx (nitrogen oxides), SO2 (sulfur dioxide) and other chemical byproducts are emitted when coal is burnt.
Brown coal in particular might have the potential to emit heavy metals and toxic chemicals (like sulphur dioxide, mercury, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides)
The type of coal being burned (black vs brown coal for example) can determine the air pollutants that are released.
An issue with air pollution is that it can decrease air quality in the area that is happens, and wind can even carry air pollutants to nearby areas.
In places where air quality is not monitored or maintained, this could be an issue.
An example of the potential impact of coal combustion on air pollutant emissions are …
Coal-fired power stations were responsible for 49% of all nitrous dioxide emissions in Australia in 2016-17 and 54% of sulfur dioxide emissions
A report by EJA … found that the pollution levels of Australian coal-fired power stations would be illegal in the US, Europe and China.
Air Pollution May Have A Health Impact & Health Costs For Society
In terms of health impact, the air pollutants that some coal power plants may release might be linked to various human health issues and diseases, as well as premature deaths.
There’s also a potential health related cost to consider.
In Australia alone, various sources indicate the health cost to society can be in the hundreds of millions, to billions of dollars.
Where there is a link locally between coal power plants and air pollution, these health costs may be indirect costs of coal energy to society.
By world standards … pollutants [from brown coal in Victoria in Australia] are poorly monitored & controlled, and they impose a staggering health cost of up to $800 million every year (environmentvictoria.org.au)
… the cost to Australia from the health impacts of the energy and transport sectors alone could be as high as $6 billion (abc.net.au)
Air Pollutants From Coal Contribute to Acid Rain
The combustion of coal may indirectly lead to acid rain.
The way this might happen is that when coal is burned, sulfur combines with oxygen, and the sulfur oxides are released into the atmosphere.
After a series of other reactions in the atmosphere (reactions with water molecules in the atmosphere to form sulfuric acid, a strong mineral acid), acid rain can be produced (whereby rain become acidic)
Coal Mining May Have Potential Environmental Effects
Mining coal, and mining different mineral out of the ground may have a range of potential negative environmental and other effects.
Coal Mining May Have Potential Human Health Effects
Byproducts of coal mining might include arsenic, sulfur dioxide, selenium, and mercury.
Miners in some parts of the world may be at risk of lung diseases via inhalation.
There’s also coal mining related injuries and fatalities to consider on an annual basis.
The Burning Of Coal May Produce Radiation
Some reports indicate that the combustion of coal at a coal-fired power plant produces more outward radiation exposure than a nuclear power plant would produce.
Some reports may link this exposure to increased levels of asthma and lung cancer for local populations.
The Full Risks Of Carbon Capture Technology For Coal Might Still Be Unknown
Some technology is claimed to capture carbon released during the combustion of coal, and store it.
But, some reports indicate that this practice where carbon is stored in the ground could have unknown risks, and could be a long term concern.
Some ‘Clean Coal’ Plants May May Have Been Shut Down In The Past
Some reports indicate that clean coal plants have had to be shut down before commissioning in several locations worldwide in the past
‘Clean Coal’ May Not Actually Be Clean In Some Ways
It might be a cleaner form of energy than regular coal plants operating without clean coal technology in some ways.
But, it might be significantly more dirty at the operation stage than energy sources like nuclear and renewables for example.
‘Clean Coal’ Technology Can Be Expensive, & Might Add To The Costs Of Energy & Electricity
– Building new ultra-supercritical coal-power plants with clean technology could cost in the billions
– Converting current coal fired plants to clean coal could be expensive
And, these costs might be passed onto end consumers
livescience.com estimates that some carbon capture and storage technologies could increase the price of energy by up to 75%.
Some ‘Clean Coal’ Technology Might Not Always Be Effective At Performing Their Function
This might apply to devices used to reduce air pollution.
Bag filters [on coal plants] are less effective for [air pollution] particles referred to as PM 2.5, or particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns … (abc.net.au)
Significant Money May Have Been Spent On ‘Clean Coal’ Technology Research and Development In The Past
This amount of money may stretch into the billions.
Some argue this money could have gone towards other more reliable energy sources.
About $50 billion has been put towards the development and deployment of “traditional” clean coal technologies over the past 30 years (wikipedia.org).
Brown Coal May Be An Inefficient Form Of Energy In Some Ways
Brown coal is wet when it is extracted and burned.
So, it might take more mining and overall a greater quantity of brown coal to produce the same amount of power when comparing brown coal to black coal
Brown Coal May Not Be Economically Feasible To Transport Long Distances
According to some reports, Victorian brown coal (in Australia) may contain more moisture than black coal – it might contain up to 70 percent water [which is considered to be a high moisture content]
environmentvictoria.org.au indicates that ‘This high moisture content makes long distance transportation uneconomic and so brown coal is not currently used for export markets’
There’s Been Some Suggestions That Coal Power Plant Emissions Might Be Able To Be Manipulated When It Comes To Reporting & Auditing
Some suggest some coal power plants may be able to do the same
Coal Waste Has A Cost To Manage, & Can Lead To Several Potential Negative Effects
Coal waste like coal ash can build up from the operation of coal power plants
Coal waste has to be treated and managed as waste, which there is a cost for.
Coal waste can also contain heavy metals, which have the potential to impact the environment, by getting into water sources and the soil.
In places like Australia, coal fly ash can make up to one fifth of the total waste stream.
There May Be Issues In Trying To Commercialise Or Reuse Some Coal Waste
When coal waste by products are commercialized or re-used in some way, the heavy metals they can contain may be a hazard in some ways
Coal Power Plants Can Be A Major User Of Water
Thermal power plants in general use water for cooling.
What type of water is used and whether it is re-used or recycled plays a big role in the water footprint of power plants.
But, solar and wind as energy sources can be less water intensive overall than a coal power plant
Read more about the water footprint of different industries in this guide.
The Conditions Of Some Coal Power Plant Licenses May Allow Investors & Plant Operators To Pollute The Environment
This might be the case where licenses are granted without regulatory conditions on air pollution or carbon emissions
Investors might be incentivised to obtain these licenses, and plant operators might have no or little accountability
theage.com.au goes into more detail about this
Coal May Not Be Suitable For Ramping Up Fast
Some energy sources may be more suitable than others for ramping up and ramping down
Some reports indicate that coal is one of the energy sources that isn’t capable of ramping up fast
Thermally lethargic technologies like coal and solid-fuel nuclear are physically incapable of fast ramping (wikipedia.org).
Combined cycle natural gas might be an energy sources that is capable of fast ramping – it might be used to support renewable energy sources in an energy grid.