Coal is a concentrated form of prehistoric biomass in the form of plant life and is the most abundant fossil fuel produced in the United States. Over 90 percent of the coal consumed in the US is used to generate electricity. Coal power is also used as a basic industry source for making steel, cement and paper, and is used in numerous other industries as well. As the first concentrated energy source to be used by man, coal fueled the Industrial Revolution and lifted the burden of labor from the backs of men and animals. The Industrial Revolution was begun in England, the first nation to employ its coal resources to increase human productivity, in turn becoming the first economic and political superpower of the energy age.
For over a century, coal served as the chief transportation energy source and fed the world’s commerce with railroads and steamships. Its transformation from an abundant but useless rock into a valuable energy source created an explosion of intellectual creativity that changed the course of human events. Currently, coal is used to meet almost 20 percent of America’s total energy demand and generate about 40 percent of all its electricity.
American Coal. The United States has enough recoverable coal reserves to last over 250 years, with reserves that are one-and-one-half times greater than our nearest competitor, Russia, and over twice that of China.[i] America’s known reserves alone constitute 26 percent of the entire world’s coal supply. While known reserves are high, actual US coal resources are much higher than current estimates.
Why? Because “reserves” represent coal that is readily evident as a result of ongoing mine operations, while “resources” include all those areas known to contain coal but have yet to be actually quantified by direct exposure due to the mining process. In-place U.S. coal resources (the entire estimated volume that is within the earth) totals 10 trillion short tons,[ii] and would last over 10,000 years at today’s consumption levels. Alaska is estimated to hold more coal than the entire lower 48 states. (While the EIA’s estimate of recoverable coal reserves in Alaska is 2.8 billion short tons[iii], geological estimates by the US Geological Survey put the in-place figure at over 6 trillion short tons.[iv]) Combined, all these US coal resources may contain the energy equivalent of 35 trillion barrels of oil. While such figures are speculative and incorporate some coal resources that may not be economically viable with today’s technology, the future is full of promise. The US’s coal resources are clearly vast.
Coal as Fuel. In additional to its pivotal role as an affordable source of electricity, coal can also be converted into liquid fuels – gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel – as well as into an alternative to liquid natural gas (LNG) for use in synthetic and industrial gases. South Africa currently produces much of its liquid fuel from coal, using a process pioneered and used by Germany prior to World War II. China has built two coal-to-gas plants in the Northwestern part of the country, piping the synthetic gas to its populated cities in order to reduce smog, and has approved construction of two additional coal-to-gas plants. Many nations, including our own, are exploring methods by which coal can be utilized in newer and cleaner forms. Coal can also be converted into a stable and inexpensive heat source for the production of ethanol.
[i] Energy Information Administration, International Energy Statistics, http://www.eia.gov/cfapps/ipdbproject/IEDIndex3.cfm?tid=1&pid=7&aid=6 http://www.eia.gov/cfapps/ipdbproject/IEDIndex3.cfm?tid=1&pid=7&aid=6