27 September 2019

Coal Energy: What’s the fuss?

By Elta Fans Asia

27 September 2019

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Sustainable energy. Energy efficient. Clean energy. These are all phrases that are popping up more frequently and as a result we are taking a closer look at the way we produce energy. A spotlight has been shone on coal energy plants and the negative impacts they are having on our health and the health of the environment. 

Globally, the demand for electricity increased by nearly four percent in 2018. In turn, the demand on coal energy plants increased, causing coal energy to grow more than any other single source of energy, accounting for 26% of the increased generation. 

A higher demand for electricity and a world designed to be powered by coal plants, are only a few of the reasons to why the conversation about moving to more sustainable, renewable energy solutions has caused so much controversy. 

We take a deeper look into exactly how much pollution is being produced by coal energy plants each year and how it is taking an effect on our health.

What is coal energy? 

Coal energy refers to the electricity produced through the process of burning coal in electrical power plants and is currently the largest source of electricity in the world. As of 2019 there are 6.7 thousand coal fired units across the globe, with another 1.3 thousand in the pipeline. 

In order to create electricity, coal is milled into fine powder, is pumped through pulverised coal combustion (PCC) systems, and blown into a boiler combustion chamber to be burnt at a high temperature. 

As the coal burns, it releases hot gasses and heat energy in to the boiler, producing steam. This steam is then passed through a turbine at a high speed, spinning the turbine. At the other end of the turbine is a generator with carefully wound wire coils. Electricity is generated when these turbines are moving at speeds high enough to create a strong magnetic field, charging the coils on the generator. 

How do coal plants affect our environment? 

The process of burning coal to create electricity, produces a huge amount of air pollution. In fact, the contribution of coal energy plants accounts for 38% of the total energy related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Carbon dioxide is only one of the many chemicals that coal energy plants are polluting our air with, and with each chemical comes a serious negative effect on our environment and our health. 

Emissions such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, mercury, lead, cadmium, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and arsenic are all released into the air through the process of coal energy production. 

To truly grasp the concept of just how much of these emissions are being released by coal energy every year from a typical uncontrolled coal plant, we have converted the amount of emissions to tangible values with visual comparisons, below. 

Toxic ChemicalAmount of EmissionEquivalent
Carbon dioxide ( CO₂ )3.5 million tons
25,000 Blue Whales
Sulfur dioxide ( SO₂ )14,100 tons
141 Boeing 757-200s
Nitrogen oxide ( NOₓ )10,300 tons
51.5 Sphinxes
Particulate matter ( PM2.5 ) 500 tons
1 military ship
Mercury77.3 kilograms
1 suit of armour
Lead51.8 kilograms
18 regular bricks
Cadmium1.8 kilograms
20 decks of cards
Carbon monoxide ( CO )720 tons
72 Indian Bull Elephants
Volatile organic
compounds ( VOCs )
220 tons
14 T-Rex’s
Arsenic102 kilograms
21 bowling balls

How do coal plants affect our health? 

With all these chemicals swirling around in the air it is no wonder it is having an adverse effect on our health. We are breathing in millions of particles into our lungs everyday and once they are there, our bodies have little they can do to remove them. 

Coal energy pollution alone is responsible for over 800,000 premature deaths globally every year. On top of that there are a huge amount of other health related issues that stem from coal energy air pollution. 

Particle pollution such as PM2.5 that is commonly present in the air are directly inhaled into the lungs where they remain. The body is unable to rid itself of such particles. This can lead to allergic reactions, hyposensitivity, bacterial and fungal infections, and even more serious diseases such as cancer, and fibrosus, and respiratory failure. 

Exposure to sulfur dioxide (CO2) has been found to be linked to headaches and anxiety, and are aggravators to existing conditions such as asthma. Repeated or prolonged exposure can even cause inflammation of respiratory organs and in extreme cases, lung damage. 

While low levels of nitrogen oxide (NOX) exposure can irritate eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, extended exposure can lead to fluid buildup in the lungs, rapid burning, spasms and swelling of the tissues in the throat and upper respiratory system, and in extreme cases, death.  

The health effects of mercury on animals and humans is well known and documented. It only takes 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury deposited on a 25 acre lake for it to make the fish inside the lake unsafe to eat. The mercury emissions created from just one coal plant in a single year has the capability to render all fish from lake Dubawnt in Canada (3850 km2) unsafe.

Inorganic arsenic is one of the most dangerous emissions produced by coal energy plants. It is a confirmed carcinogen and one of every 100 people drinking water contaminated with 50 parts per billion of arsenic are guaranteed to get cancer. 

Why are we still using coal energy?

There are a number of arguments for coal energy when up against renewable energy solutions. The first being money. Carbon energy is inexpensive and efficient. Renewable solutions are becoming more affordable but are still more expensive to create and run. 

The second is that coal is more reliable than other renewable sources of energy. Renewable energy such as wind energy plants, rely on weather conditions making them limited and at the mercy of an unreliable weather environment whereas coal can be produced easily and has little limiting factors. 

The third argument is that the world was built to be powered by coal energy. Coal is easily accessible through mining and the industry is backed by big players and powerful governments. Our electrical grids are designed for it, and banks profit from it. To make a change over to 100% renewable energy, would disrupt big corporations and disadvantage many of the key players in the industry. 

There is still a long way to go to reshape our cities and towns to encompass renewable and sustainable energy sources. The change over to a more sustainable energy source will take time and resources. As the demand for electricity rises and electricity becomes a necessity in our world, any lapse in production could have serious consequences. 

What can help?

For the moment, coal energy is here to stay. Until renewable energy can catch up and an affordable, sustainable solution is found, reducing the demand and production of electricity by coal energy plants should be the highest priority.

This can be done by using energy efficient and low energy producing products. The less energy we use in our everyday lives, the less electricity is required. By using products that require less electricity to run, we are lowering the amount of electricity that needs to be produced to meet demand. 

Encourage the transition to renewable energy solutions. Whilst coal might be here for the meantime it is still important that we work towards a more sustainable energy source. This requires planning and support. By advocating for the importance of removing the use of coal for energy, we can aid in minimising the transition period. 

The production of coal energy causes tons of toxic pollutants to be released into our air. These toxic pollutants are both bad for our environment and our health. As our focus turns to more sustainable solutions for electricity production, coal plants are still being used. Energy efficient and low energy consuming products are an easy way to lower the amount of electricity demand and therefore the amount of pollutants being put in our air. 

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