Coal power

Coal power comes from energy stored by the photosynthetic activity of plants millions of years ago.

When coal is burnt this energy from the ancient sun is released as heat that we first convert to steam and later to electricity in coal-fired power stations.

And all we had to do was to dig it up.

Power from coal is still plentiful and still relatively easy to provide. At scale it is still cheaper than most alternative fuels.

After China — that produces nearly half the global production of 7.1 billion tons — the reserves of coal are spread around the world and not restricted to specific regions or countries.

A dozen countries produce more than 70 million tons per year and 33 more than 5 million tons.

It is not surprising that China opens a new coal-fired power station every second week given it consumes close to half of global coal production.

Burning coal also releases roughly 1 tCO2e per megawatt of energy generated.

coal power | coal mine in Australia

So despite what it has given us, coal is considered a dirty option to generate power because of coal combustion emissions.

One solution to make coal less carbon intensive is to strip it as it leaves the power station chimneys, liquify the gas and store it underground. This carbon capture and storage or CCS is possible but it suffers from the classic NIMBY challenge.

Not in my backyard.

Nobody wants the liquefied carbon stripped from the stacks of the power stations pumped into the ground under their suburb. Who knows what it will do down there.

The conundrum

Whatever the climate impact might be, we are not going to stop burning coal any time soon.

Even if a ubiquitous, cheap alternative fuel were sourced tomorrow it would take time to roll out at scale. There would be a transition period in which coal would remain important. So coal power is with us.

In fact, as a still cheap source of electricity it defines the modern world almost as much as oil.

We are going to have to wear the consequences of burning coal or pay the economic cost even if we decide to transition to something else.

Tough choice.

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