Cost of Coal

Lydia Mitchell   

Laura Erdman

Section 005   GSI Kendra Walker



The Cost of Coal

The debate over the need for alternative energy to replace oil and coal is well versed.  From the environmental ramifications of burning fossil fuels and mining coal to the political dependence on foreign countries because of the need for oil, there are many aspects of this energy debate.  Environmentalists wish to pursue alternative energy so that the United States can begin to repair the current damage to the environment and begin a ‘sustainable lifestyle’.  Some advocates argue for alternative energy and the need to stop the mining of coal.  All of these arguments offer valid reasoning to seek alternative energy.   The costs of using coal outweigh the benefits of its use.  The United States relies too heavily on this fossil fuel and is not working hard enough to invest in alternate forms of energy.  The advantages that coal does have are outweighed by social, political and environmental disadvantages. 

Coal is a non-renewable energy resource that has been used as a main energy resource in the United States for many years and as a finite source will eventually run out.  Coal represents one quarter of the energy sources that the United States uses annually and is the number one source of energy for electricity production as well (Figures 1 and 2).  Sidney Borowitz notes in Farewell Fossil Fuels that, “…we have little more than a century to develop adequate, practical, and inexpensive technologies to replace some of these sources.  It is time to sound a tocsin to urge us to prepare for the inevitable—that an energy crisis due to scarcity will occur, whose consequences are not as easily overcome as adjusting to increased fuel prices” (Borowitz 9).  The United States burns a billion tons of coal a year, and this is apt to run out sooner than expected, Ann Chambers notes that, “Total electric load is projected to grow by more than 1 billion kWh in the next two decades.”  This figure shows the projected and growing use of coal in the United States.  Americans have developed a dependence on the use of this fossil fuel and the low prices that are seemingly connected to its use.

Coal is a low cost and abundant resource in the United States.  Figure 4 shows the high amounts of the use of energy from solid fuels in the United States.  However, upgrading this highly utilized source of energy is an option.  One source explained that upgrading “…would enable the U.S. to more fully use its abundant, low-cost coal resources and ensure access to reliable, affordable electricity” (Williams).  So not only is coal a cheap and domestic resource, but there is evidence that the U.S. would benefit from improving the coal infrastructure.  This upgrading is also discussed in coal gasification.  This is a process that involves pressurizing coal and making it into a gas.  This would allow for better transport, easier purification by removing sulfur, and would increase efficiency (Valenti).  These encouragements for improving the infrastructure make coal an enticing offer to big corporations who can see the benefits of these processes more clearly than those of other alternative energy sources.  This upgrading also plays to the idea that an update is more effective and maybe cheaper than a total revamp of infrastructure that is most likely required for the adoption of most other alternative energies.

Another argument for the use of coal is to lower U.S. dependence on foreign oil.  One-fourth of the world oil reserves are located in the Middle East.  There are many political factors that determine the cost and supply of Middle East oil, and more than one half of the oil used in the United States must be imported (Borowitz 11).  So the balance of the oil trade between the United States and other countries is always in jeopardy.  Though the cost of trade and relations between countries may be strenuous, the actual cost of fossil fuels within the United States is rather inexpensive.  Figure 2 shows the actual use of energy in the United States, fossil fuel use is much higher than all other resources.  There has been some support for alternatives to energy, but the expense is still too great in comparison to fossil fuels to attract any real public interest (Borowitz 11).

However, fossil fuels are not as inexpensive as they appear.  Before going into alternative energy sources in comparison to coal it must also be shown that there are also many negative environmental side effects.  Coal increases carbon dioxide in the atmosphere when it is burned. The greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, adds to global warming.  It has been found that, “Every year, fossil fuel use adds about six billion metric tons of carbon—in the form of carbon dioxide—to the atmosphere” (McKibbin 2002). Burning coal also produces sulfur, nitrogen oxide, and mercury which can pollute the water and air.  The mixture of sulfur and oxygen forms sulfur dioxide, which is a chemical that can produce acid rain when it is mixed with moisture.  The release of nitrogen oxide in the air helps to create smog, and the mercury that is also released into the air settles into water. Having this mercury in the water can build up in fish, which may harm the people and animals who consume these fish. Another source of pollution is found in ash.  Ash is produced from incombustible matter from the burning of coal (Berinstein 17).  It often forms a residue or build-up, and cannot always be used in landfills, cinder blocks, and concrete (Berinstein 17).  This pollution creates small particles that are released into the air when coal is burned.  These particles are concentrated in the air so that people living downwind from plants using coal have to breathe in the particles.  These particles are called particulate matter and are very harmful to human health.  Coal may also be affecting the public health in forms that are not yet realized. 


Coal is a major hazard to the environment when it is used to create energy, but it is also a major hazard to be mined.  Conventional mining is unsafe and no longer cost effective.  However, due to added machinery requiring fewer workers, the amount of labor needed has been lowered dramatically (Berinstein 19).  The alternative to conventional mining is known as strip mining.  Strip mining involves removing the surface of the land and mining the coal, usually directly off the tops of mountains.  This process is degenerative to the ecosystems and destroys mountaintops.  Strip mining simply adds to the environmental ramifications of energy dependence on coal.  Also, waste piles collect from the mining that is being done and acid mine drainage may leak toxic products into water supplies (Berinstein 20).  These are the newest hazards related to the use of mining coal for energy. 

There are alternative forms of energy that may be used in place of coal.  Several examples are solar energy, geothermal energy, and wind power.  Though these alternatives may initially be costly they will become more efficient over time.  Many of these alternatives will also be much better for the environment.   Borowiz believes that; “New technologies will either have to be so unrealistically inexpensive to start and to run or the marketing of new technologies will have to avoid direct confrontation with fossil fuel generators.  Either of these alternatives is iffy” (Borowitz 114).  If this is the case something needs to be done to gain the attention of the public, pushing them in the direction of alternative sources of energy.  Many companies are afraid to invest in these alternate resources as they fear a negative reaction from society.  However, as a society it must be realized that in the long run the effort to use alternate forms of energy will help protect the both the United States and the world from environmental degradation, global warming, and eventually skyrocketing fossil fuel prices.  Figure 4 demonstrates that there are many nations around the world that are using alternative energies from more than half to all of their energy production.  Alternative fuels are not an impossible goal and many nations have proven that alternative fuels can be successful.  Most of South America and several countries in Asia and Europe now use alternative energies other than hydroelectric energy to power half or more of their energies (Figure 4).

One alternative energy source is solar energy.  Solar energy uses photovoltaic cells to collect light which is then converted directly into electricity.  It is a positive source of alternative energy as it is inexhaustible, also having a minimal impact on the environment, and is low-maintenance and simple (Berinstein 64).  The negative aspects of solar energy is that it is an intermittent resource, not competitive with other energy sources, and does not yet have good transmission and storage systems as energy is still lost during travel (Berinstein 64).  However, Berinstein also mentions that “The amount of sunlight that reaches the continental United States is about 4,000 times more energy than is used each year” (64).  If solar energy can be used more efficiently it will become an even greater source of energy for the United States.


Geothermal energy uses heat from inside of the earth, from places like the earth’s core, decaying of natural radioactive substances, and friction from the earth’s tectonic plates (Berinstein 126).  Most of this energy is trapped under the crust of the earth, which is a poor conductor.  To retrieve this heat the earth must be drilled and water has to be pumped to the heat source.  The hot water or steam then must come to the surface, and be converted into electricity or used directly (Berinstein 126).  However, Berinstein also mentions the immensity of this energy, “But that amount of energy is huge: the thermal energy contained in just the uppermost six miles of the crust itself totals 50,000 times the energy of all the world’s oil and gas resources” (126).  The actual amount of geothermal energy used in the United States is shown in Figure 3.  Alaska and Hawaii are considered to be the best resources for geothermal energy, and there are areas in the United States utilizing geothermal energy.  Technically, geothermal energy is not a renewable resource, but it is not probably that there would ever be total exhaustion of this source (Berinstein 126). 


Wind energy is a third example of alternate and renewable energy.  Wind energy is actually a form of solar energy as the uneven heating of the earth causes a pressure between warm and cool air, causing a wind to blow (Borowitz 145).  Also as the earth is in its normal rotation, air is pulled with it causing a wind moving from the west to the east.  There are wind-farms using the wind to create energy.  However, some regions are windier than others, causing a larger distance for the energy to be transported.  Costs of the actual wind mills are decreasing as the designs improve and there are no fuel costs (Berinstein 99).  These mills are considered to be ugly by some people and cause disruption to habitats, are known to kill birds, and require cleared land in order to work properly (Berinstein 101).  Wind energy also has potential to be a useful resource in most regions in the world.


So now we are faced with the question of, do the costs of coal outweigh the benefits or are the alternatives incentive enough to satisfy both consumer and producers?  Cost benefit analysis may be used to decide if all the numbers add up to a change or if it would be better to stay with the status quo.  Kraft argues that there is one main guideline to follow; that concentrate efforts on changes that have the greatest chance of impact (Kraft 226).   This most likely includes choosing a less environmentally friendly effort as it presently has a better chance of working, therefore reducing some environmental hazards.  This view also suggests that a more drastic effort may yield fewer benefits because it has a lower chance of success.  This opinion would encourage coal gasification over the more drastic switch to alternative energies.  By updating infrastructure and using coal gasification admissions can be lowered, and money would not be placed into more risky alternative energies.

A counter to this analysis, made by many environmentalists, is that environmental choices should not be put into economic terms.  Instead, the cost-benefit analysis should be based only on moral terms (Kraft 227).  This view argues that despite the economic benefits of choosing a less effective plan, moral obligations are still being ignored in the form of the environment and to the future of humanity.  This is showing that even if coal gasification reduces some emissions, there are still major extraction hazards and in the long run the environment is not being helped.  Though it may be more costly to begin a switch in infrastructure, the moral choice is to look into the future and begin to use policies that will have a lasting effect.

          The debate over the use of coal has many various solutions.  For coal producers wishing to continue using coal there are options to improve infrastructure and reduce some emissions.  There are also many options for alternative energy that are much better for the environment, but these options need to develop and gain more support from the public, despite the risks.  A well rounded solution is needed, and may need to include more than one of the solutions presented by varying environmentalists.  As long as coal is still very cheap it will be difficult to foster a wide spread drive for alternative energies infrastructure.  Yet, in the long run this is the direction that the United States will have to follow.  So whether change starts now before fossil fuels become scarce, or people wait until prices rise and the climate begins to change drastically; change must occur and must be decided and supported by the voting public and the leaders of our country.