Why Is Coal Important To Society, & What Do We Use It For The Most?

In the guide below, we outline how and why coal is important to society

We also explain what we use coal for the most across different industries/sectors and applications in society.


Summary – Why/How Coal Is Important To Society, & What We Use Coal For The Most

Use Of Coal Throughout History

Throughout recent history, especially the last century or so, coal and other fossil fuels (like oil and natural gas) have been responsible for helping build some of the most developed countries’ economies


A Key Use For Coal Today In Major Countries

During the present day, coal is still used as a key energy source for multiple major countries, and has been used for electricity generation in particular

China is one example of one such a country (that heavily relies on coal)


Other Key Uses Of Coal

Aside from energy production and electricity generation, coal has a number of other key uses in society

For example, we use coking coal as a primary source of carbon in steel production, and coal is also used for cement manufacturing too


Other Reasons Why Coal Might Be Important

Serving the key uses outlined in this guide makes coal important enough.

However, coal may also have other benefits it provides society that makes it important.

At the bottom of this guide, we summarise some of these potential benefits.


Potential Major Drawbacks Of Coal

In addition to the key uses for coal, and it’s potential benefits, it may also have some potential drawbacks.

We list some of those potential drawbacks at the bottom of this guide.


Why Is Coal Important To Society?

– Present Day

One of the main reasons coal is important to society in the present day is because of the sheer range of things we use on an everyday basis that use fossil fuels in some way, shape, or form

Coal is one of the three main fossil fuels, and overall, it’s estimated fossil fuels are still used in 96% of the things we use everyday.

Primary energy production and electricity generation are key uses for coal specifically in several major countries.


world-nuclear.org indicates that ‘Coal is the world’s most abundant and widely distributed fossil fuel source’


So, even amongst fossil fuels, coal might be the most prominent one according to some metrics.


– In The Past

Coal (and fossil fuels in general) have played a key role in the development/growth of some countries’ economies in the past, and still continue to for some countries


When Did We Start Using More Coal Throughout History?

The last 100 to 150 years has seen a noticeable increase in the use of coal and fossil fuels according to multiple reports


ourworldindata.org indicates that by the year 1900, coal consumption had increased significantly worldwide, accounting for almost half of global energy


Other reports indicate that when looking at current day fossil fuel use in general compared to the year 1950, fossil fuel use has increased about 8 fold 


What Do We Use Coal For The Most In Society?

Energy Generation, & Electricity Production

The main thing we might use coal for in society today is energy generation – specifically electricity generation

For electricity generation, coal is washed and processed, and transported to coal power plants

At power plants, coal is combusted, which creates heat, which boils water and creates steam, which moves large turbines to create electricity


usgs.gov indicates that black coal might be used the most for electricity generation in the US:

[Bituminous is] the most common type of coal used in electricity generation in the US …


Other Uses For Coal Across Society

Coal has some other key uses across society other than electricity generation.

Some of these other uses of coal can include:


– The production and manufacturing of steel

Coking coal is used in steel production as a primary source of carbon


– The manufacturing of cement

Coal can often be used as a fuel for cement kilns, where kilns can burn coal in the form of powder for example


– Use as a liquid fuel


– An an ingredient in making other products, materials and chemicals

Coal may also be used in alumina refining, paper manufacture, and for other industrial uses


– Other uses for coal

Read more about the uses of coal at worldcoal.org


How Geography Can Impact What Coal Is Used For

Geography (and geology) can sometimes impact what coal is used for in a specific country

An example of this might be that some countries have an abundance of a certain type of coal, such as brown coal

Where this is the case, it might be cheap to supply this type of coal to the local economy, and therefore it might be used in greater quantities for cheaper or more affordable electricity (compared to importing energy, or using other energy sources)


Sectors That Use The Most Coal


The electricity generation sector might be one of the sectors that use the most coal on a worldwide level.


Worldwide … the most significant uses of coal are in electricity generation, steel production, cement manufacturing and as a liquid fuel (worldcoal.org)


Coal supplies a third of all energy used worldwide and makes up 38% of electricity generation, as well as playing a crucial role in industries such as iron and steel (iea.org)


United States

In the US, electricity generation used the most coal of all sectors by a significant margin.


According to eia.gov, in the US in 2017, of all coal consuming sectors:

[Electric power used the most coal of all sectors at 92.7%]

[Industrial was second at 7.1%]

[The other sectors that followed industrial, in order, were, industrial coke plants, industrial combined heat and power, other industrial, commercial and then residential and transportation]



Most of China’s coal use is in the industrial sector, with manufacturing, agriculture and construction following behind it


From chinapower.csis.org:

In 2015, most of China’s energy and coal use came from the industrial sector, with 67.9 percent of the country’s energy use and 54.2 percent of its coal use due to manufacturing, agriculture, and construction.

An additional 41.8 percent of China’s coal consumption came from power production activities.


How Much Primary Energy Coal Provides Worldwide

Along with oil and natural gas, coal might be be responsible for providing most of the world’s primary energy needs/primary energy consumption


From world-nuclear.org:

Some 27% of primary energy needs are met by coal …


From ourworldindata.org:

[In 2017, oil, coal and natural gas lead worldwide primary energy consumption, providing 53, 43, and 35 thousand TWh respectively. The next closest is traditional biofuels at 10 thousand TWh]


How Much Electricity Coal Provides Worldwide

Coal is one of the major energy sources for electricity generation worldwide


From world-nuclear.org:

Some 38% of electricity is generated from coal


How Much Power Coal Provides In The United States

Coal is one of the major energy sources used for the US’ primary energy production


From eia.gov:

[In 2017, coal provided 17.8% of the US’ primary energy production, which was third behind natural gas at 31.8%, and petroleum (crude oil and natural gas plant liquids) at 28%]


You can read more about the United States’ energy use and production in this guide.


How Much Energy Coal Provides In China

Coal appears to be a major energy source for energy use in China


From chinapower.csis.org:

In 2016, coal made up 62 percent of China’s energy use. 


You can read more about China’s energy use and production in this guide.


How Much Power Coal Provides In Other Countries

You can read more about the energy source breakdown in some other major countries in the world in this guide.


Just as one example of another major country, India’s primary energy consumption was made up of more than 50% coal in 2018.


How Reliant Is Steel Production On Coal?

Steel production appears to be very reliant on coal right now.


About 70% of world steel production depends on coal feedstock (world-nuclear.org)


Countries That Use The Most Coal

Every report we came across indicated that China has been the largest use of coal of all countries for at least a decade (or more) – using as much or more coal than all other countries combined


The top ten coal consuming countries account for over 85% of the world’s total coal consumption, with China alone consuming as much as rest of the world together (mining-technology.com)


Since 2011, China has consumed more coal than the rest of the world combined (chinapower.csis.org)


According to statista.com, China used the most coal in 2017, and it used 4 times more coal than the second placed India. The US was third.


What Is The Future Trend For Coal Use Worldwide?

Some reports indicate that some countries China, India and Southeast Asia are expected to increase coal consumption at least in the short term in the future, before potentially trying to transition further away from coal at some point beyond that (in the medium to long term)

Other reports indicate that some countries have already began their transition away from coal to natural gas, nuclear and renewable energy.

For example, over the last few decades, the US might have increased natural gas use and decreased coal use on a national level


Potential Benefits Of Coal

Coal has a number of potential economic benefits, such as helping provide employment, incomes and economic growth

It may provide a number of other benefits too, such as …

Providing a cheap source of electricity in some countries

Providing a backup or complementary power source to renewables in some countries

Helping some countries gain more energy independence where it reduces their reliance on foreign energy (such as natural gas from Russia)

Many major power grids and major power infrastructure in many cities around the world may currently be set up for fossil fuels like coal too


Potential Pros & Cons Of Coal Energy

Read a more complete list of the potential pros and cons of coal energy in this guide.


Some of the major drawbacks of coal that we mention include but aren’t limited to:

The potential social and environmental impact of coal mining

Air pollution (via air contaminants and toxins) and greenhouse gas emissions from the combustion/burning of coal

The management (and treatment) of coal waste (coal ash), and how heavy metals from coal waste might do damage to soil and water (and eventually wildlife) if it’s simply dumped or left untreated/uncontained




1. http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/energy-and-the-environment/clean-coal-technologies.aspx

2. https://ourworldindata.org/energy-production-and-changing-energy-sources

3. Various ‘Better Meets Reality’ guides

4. https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2014/08/28/five-reasons-expanding-brown-coal-mines-might-problem/

5. https://www.statista.com/statistics/265510/countries-with-the-largest-coal-consumption/ 

6. https://www.worldcoal.org/coal/uses-coal 

7. https://www.mining-technology.com/features/featurethe-worlds-biggest-coal-consumers-4353695/ 

8. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.php?page=coal_use 

9. https://www.iea.org/topics/coal/

10. http://www.ga.gov.au/scientific-topics/minerals/mineral-resources-and-advice/australian-resource-reviews/black-coal

11. https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/what-are-types-coal?qt-news_science_products=0#qt-news_science_products


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