Coal has always been controversial because it burns producing a large amount of soot and other pollutants. When it was first came into widespread use during the industrial age it has already found many uses as far back as 400 BCE by the Romans. The Aztec also used coal but some was more for ornamental purposes than burning it. During the industrial age it was used to fuel industries and heat homes which lead to a thick cloud of soot that hung in the air which made breathing often difficult. The smoke would get so thick that it would not only block out the light from the sun it would seem almost night, or twilight, making it hard to see where you were going. Coal produced a dirty black smoke that left many of the well to do to hire maids and servants that did nothing more than wipe every surface more than once a day to keep the house clean.
That’s the end of a brief history for coal. Nothing has changed much except that with the Clean Air Act and changes in the way coal fired power plants were regulated helped to clean up the air by removing much of the soot. There are still varying amounts of other material that leave the smoke stack but nothing like in the industrial age of the 1700’s and 1800’s when pollution was unregulated.
Currently we in the U.S. get the majority of our electricity from coal fired power plants, around 55%. Along with electricity power plants give us a vast amount of pollutants: mercury, radioactive particles, sulfur dioxide, haze producing particles too small to filter, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, arsenic, lead and carbon dioxide. Anyone trying to sell you on ‘clean coal’ is trying to give you pile of stink. To say it more plain, clean coal is horse shit. There is just no such thing! They would have to remove all smoke stacks and filter out all the contaminants 100% somehow and then get rid of the toxic soup that results. Coal pollutes, end of story.
Coal unfortunately will be with us for some years to come. But, that may not be for much longer. As of 2000 the energy output of coal has been dropping, not because of less energy produced but we have had to use a lesser quality of coal which just doesn’t produce as much energy as the harder higher quality coal we have been using. We have reached the peak in coal energy. There are coal supporters claiming we have at least 200 years to go before we hit peak in coal production, and that may be true but the quality of that coal will only go down forcing power plants to burn ever increasing amounts to produce the same amount of energy. So, who is right? It depends on your view really. I am of the view that if it takes every increasing amounts to produce the same amount of energy then we have hit a peak.
So. what is the answer for our future? Leave coal behind us, in our past. Coal is not only, and will always be polluting despite the clean coal double-speak there are other hidden costs people tend to overlook. Mountain top remove is the worst. Instead of sinking shafts into the ground it is now common practice to remove everything on top, haul it away, then extract the coal, and leave behind a waste land and tailings ponds where nothing will grow for a very long, long time. Some areas can be rehabilitated by replanting but it is becoming less of a desirable thing as it only adds to the cost and cuts into the profits.
Mountain top remove pollutes on many levels: tailings ponds of poisoned water, tailings piles and over burden, run off that chokes a river until it no longer flows, poisoned run off down stream, and then the heavy equipment which uses huge quantities of petroleum. There is nothing positive to say about this method of mining.
To leave this behind we can divert the subsides in every increasing amounts toward Solar and Wind energy instead. Start with as little as ten percent. Then add a pollution tax that goes toward renewable energy only to help home owners to add energy saving devices, insulation, solar panels and maybe a helix windmill. Then every two years move another ten percent from coal subsides toward renewable energy installation nation wide. As we produce enough electricity from renewable sources it is time to shut down the dirtiest coal fired plants first until we have so few left coal fired plants that they can be left as a back up should they be needed while new forms of large scale energy storage are installed.
Of course that is a very simple view there is so much more to it. The idea is that homeowners get the assistance to help us move toward renewable energy sources as businesses should have enough funds themselves to do this transition. As we transition to a new future powered by renewable energy sources some business will not survive and there is no reason to throw money at a business to move from dirty fossil fuels to renewable source if it isn’t going to survive the move.
Coal and renewable sources of energy could live side by side for at least the next 25 years but not much longer or we will never let go of that which is causing health problems, environmental pollution and is one of the dirtiest sources of energy we currently use. It’s time to make our peace and say goodbye to coal.