Friday, May 23, 2008

Coal Power

With Memorial Day right around the corner, the thought of barbecues dance in the head of almost all weekend warriors. Hot dogs and hamburgers will slowly roast on grills, a good portion of those over coal. This serene image is the one many have of coal, which is more commonly used in power plants around the country to provide energy. In fact, 40% of the world's electricity is generated this way, a number that really took me by surprise.

If I’m going to try and at least play Devil’s advocate to coal power, the only thing I see it has going for it is that it's readily available. What that really means is that there's enough coal to get us by for the foreseeable future (though some figures have it up to 300 years). The problem is that coal is the biggest offender in producing climate change. Some steps have been made to help decrease carbon output by combining it with other gases to cut down on its toxic emissions, but the effect is so small that it’s barely noticeable.

Also, it apparently will help create more jobs for coal miners.

And that's where the positives pretty much end. Having been to Centralia (a town in Pennsylvania whose mines are still on fire) highlighted for me not only the terrible effect coal has on the environment, but also on communities. Coal produces a lot of toxins that cause cancer and various other unwanted diseases. It’s also incredibly deadly to mine, which was most recently highlighted two years ago in West Virginia.

In addition, acid rain is another side effect which has negative implications not only on the rain forest, but in water reserves, building foundations, and human life.

Unfortunately, many developing nations use coal as their main energy source. China is a major offender, using 2.3 billion tons of coal per year, one-third of the amount produced globally. India also uses a lot as well (447 million tons). This has led to another problem: when does developing a nation end and global awareness begin? Add to that America’s own coal consumption (we’re #2 with 1 billion tons) and it looks like it may be a long way before we view that grill as coal’s main power use.

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