Coal is the number one source of energy in the globe. It is cheap, abundant, and easy to store and burn. Much of the world depends on coal to become an industrialized economy. The price of electricity produced from coal can be as low as half the price of other forms of energy. The United States generates 26% of all electricity through coal. Plans to lower that level are minimal. Japan turned to coal after the Fukushima disaster. While some countries seems to be tapering off their use of coal, others are just getting started.
Last week I discussed the potential of Thorium Nuclear reactors, arguably one of the most sustainable forms of energy. Coal, on the other hand, must be the dirtiest. There are costs to burning coal that often go unseen and unaccounted for. These negative externalities are imposed on people outside of the coal market allowing for the price of coal to stay low. Coal mines are dangerous and the burning of coal releases high levels of CO2 and sulphur dioxide. The Clean Air Task Force claims that the large particulates in the air from US coal factories alone account for 30,000 deaths per year. And the United States does not have smog covered cities like Beijing or Shanghai. India and China are two of the largest producers of energy from coal. The death toll must be even larger in these countries. The business of coal is discussed in greater detail here. Coal burning plants even produce higher levels of radioactive chemicals than many power plants (definitely more than thorium reactors). The costs seem to keep adding up, but no one is paying the price.
Coal is dirty and kills tens of thousands of people each year with the future consequences possibly even greater. When the proper safety measures are made for burning coal cleanly, the price skyrockets to nearly seven times the price of gas powered energy plants. The externalities in coal production are high, but ending the use of coal would also mean the loss of productivity and jobs in poorer nations. Poorer countries that are just entering the industrialized world are unable to afford the benefits of moving to greener technology. Energy use is going to continue to increase. As poorer countries start to develop into rich nations, they will need coal to fuel that progress cheaply.The push for nuclear, solar and wind will have to come from rich countries that have already progressed far enough to invest in sustainable energy.