Eighty-five percent of global coal reserves are concentrated in six countries (in descending order of reserves): USA, Russia, India, China, Australia and South Africa and coal fuels over 40 percent of electricity worldwide. Coal plants produce ash, sludge, toxic chemicals and the waste heat creates more environmental problems to boot. Burning coal also causes smog, soot, acid rain, global warming, and toxic air emissions. World coal consumption is going up rapidly.
According to the Energy Information Agency (EIA) between 2004 and 2008, total world consumption of coal went from 6,259,645,000 to 7,238,208,000 short tons. That's a 15.6 percent increase of the most carbon-intensive kind of fuel in just four years. Ouch. With the cost of living always on the rise, we want cheap energy. However, coal power is not cheap and it comes with a cost. The costs are reflected through the chronic health problems and the loss of ecosystems. When it comes to global warming and air pollution, coal is the number one enemy.
The United States alone hold 30 percent of all coal reserves; are the second largest coal producer and has more energy resources in coal reserves than the Middle East has in petroleum reserves. There are over 600 coal plants throughout the USA that generate 54 percent of their nation's electricity and is their single, biggest air polluter. China is by far the world's largest coal user and producer but possesses only half the reserves of the USA.
China has been widely blamed for the rapid rise in greenhouse-gas emissions. Yet, out of this calamity China has emerged as a world leader of more efficient, less polluting coal generating plants by mastering the technology and driving down development costs. Meanwhile, the United States is pondering the idea of building more efficient coal burning plants.
As the world's population increases and in conjunction with the current Asia, European, and North American living standards, there is no question that we need every energy source we can get to supply our energy-demanding world. Every form of energy generation - from coal and nuclear to even wind and hydroelectric - has its advantages and disadvantages. A worthy example in order to help fight the influx of electrical power is nuclear. The advantages to nuclear power is the fuel is inexpensive, the waste is more compact, is easy to transport as a new fuel and has no greenhouse emissions or acid rain.
The waste that this power produces needs to be contained, but it is done far more safely than ash. Against this backdrop, the waste can be processed and reused for next-generation plants. However, the downside is that it requires larger capital costs for emergencies, containment, radioactive waste and storage. It does not matter how well a nuclear facility is built and/or comes with the latest, greatest cutting-edge know-how; I could not fathom a quake striking one of our nuclear facilities and releasing a pool of toxic sludge.
The paradox of technology is that we cannot foresee all the chains of events and even if we could, we do not know the outcome because there is insufficient data to predict it. A fine example of this is pouring water on an extremely hot reactor to cool it down in a notable attempt to fix it, but only to find out that it turned into hydrogen, which then leads to an explosion. All fossil fuels will eventually run out. Coal-fired power plants must have state-of-the-art pollution controls and significant improvements must continue to be made regarding how efficiently coal is mined and used so more energy can be generated from each ton of coal. Nations cannot continue to allow this critical problem to go up in smoke.