Coal is primarily used to create electricity in the United States. For coal to create electricity, bituminous or subbituminous coal is burned, which turns water into steam that turns a turbine and creates electricity. Bituminous and subbituminous coal is found in abundance in West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming. In fact, coal makes up 90 percent of West Virginia’s energy mix and creates over $4 billion in economic activity for the state. It makes up 22 percent of the U.S. energy mix.
Coal is extracted via underground mining or surfacing mining, which contributed to about 64 percent of all mined coal in 2020. Underground mining uses heavy machinery to extract coal from underground deposits, while surface mining removes layers of soil and rock to reach the deposits below.
Coal provides affordable and reliable power to the U.S. energy grid. Its ability to be stored on site is an important and unique characteristic that allows for coal supply to provide energy for weeks or months. It is widely available and relatively cheap to convert into electricity, thus powering almost a quarter of the U.S. energy mix.
Though it has numerous upsides, coal has also been criticized for being a dirty source of energy. Coal combustion creates sulfur dioxide, which contributes to acid rain, and nitrous oxide, which contributes to respiratory illness, and carbon dioxide, which is the primary greenhouse gas derived from burning fossil fuels. In 1970, the Clean Air Act (CAA) was written, giving the EPA the authority to create air quality standards. The CAA also granted the EPA the power to issue state-level emission caps aimed at turning states away from burning fossil fuels. This authority, though, was curved by the Supreme Court in 2022, granting the power of emission capping to Congress.
The coal industry has found ways to reduce its emissions over time. Washing or using low-sulfur coal, even using scrubbers to remove sulfur from smoke before it leaves the smoke stacks. The U.S. government has also worked with the industry to develop technologies that remove impurities, making it cleaner to burn and more energy efficient. Carbon capture is also being used to help reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere, reducing the negative impact of coal-fired power plants. Reusing land formerly used for mining is also a way to combat the negative impacts– old surface mines can be used for airports, landfills, or even golf courses.
Though the general consensus is to turn away from fossil fuels, there is no doubt that coal will play a vital role in providing electricity. Energy consumption is increasing rapidly and the future outlook predicts that coal will remain a steady contributor to America’s energy mix.
Written by John Cassibry, Former Media Coordinator
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.