Is it still being used?

Of course! Coal usage is greater than ever before. Surprised? Read on.

Coal is as important to your life as it was to your grandparents, or your great-grandparents’ lives at the turn of the century. For them, coal was an obvious necessity, since it powered railroads and boats that carried commerce goods to market. It also fueled factories and heated homes.

Coal is working as hard for the world today as it did a century ago. Using the United States as an example, do you know that a typical home in the country requires about 4-5 kW of power, or about 100 kWh per day, or about 3,000 kWh per month, or about 36,000 kWh per year. A family of four for example uses 1530 kilograms ( 3,375 pounds) of coal in one year just to heat their electric water heater? Or that their range would require 254 kilograms (560 pounds) of coal and their TV would require 116 kilograms (256 pounds) in one year? Pretty amazing, isn’t it? That’s because more than 50% of the electricity used by American households is generated by burning coal. As a matter of fact, Americans use far more coal today than at any other time in the nation’s history!


Coal is a very unique and diverse substance which can vary widely in characteristics. Generally, coal is classified into four major categories:

  • Lignite (softest coal) – A brownish-black coal with generally high moisture and ash content, and the lowest carbon content and heating value. It is primarily used by electricity generating plants.
  • Sub-bituminous (medium-soft coal) – A dull black coal with a higher heating value than lignite. It is also used to produce electricity at generating plants.
  • Bituminous – A medium-hard, intermediate grade of coal that is the most common and widely used for instance in the United States to generate electricity and to make coke used in the steel industry. It contains very little moisture and has high heat value.
  • Anthracite – The hardest type of coal, consisting of nearly pure carbon. Anthracite has the highest heating value and lowest moisture and ash content. It burns slowly and makes a good heating fuel.

What is Coal Being Used For Today?

  • For Electric Power – Generating plants burn coal to make steam. The steam turns turbines which generate electricity, which in turn powers lightbulbs, air conditioners, appliances, computers and even life-saving equipment in hospitals.
  • For Industry – A variety of industries use coal’s heat and by-products. Separated ingredients of coal (such as methanol and ethylene) are used in making plastics, tar, synthetic fibers, fertilizers and medicines. The concrete and paper industries also burn large amounts of coal.
  • For Making Steel – Coal is baked in hot furnaces to make coke, which is used to smelt iron ore into the iron needed for making steel. It’s the carbon in coal that gives steel the strength and versatility for products such as bridges, automobiles and buildings.
  • For Export – For example the United States is one of the top exporters of coal in the world. Most coal goes to China, Western Europe, Canada and Japan.

Why Use Coal?

In the case of the United States the reason is that the country has a great supply of coal. America has the largest coal reserves in the world. If the country used all the recoverable coal it has at the same rate used today, there would be enough coal to last almost 300 years. The country has much more coal than oil or natural gas.

Another reason for coal use is that it is affordable. Coal is usually less expensive than other fuels. It is also less expensive than nuclear energy, which requires power plants that have become increasingly expensive and difficult to build. Locating coal reserves is also easier and less expensive than locating oil or natural gas.

How Does Coal Mining Affect Our Environment?

In the early 1900’s coal had developed a bad image because of the soot, dirt and pollution it created. But today, even though coal use has nearly doubled in the last 20 years, its sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions are at their lowest levels since the 1930’s. The reason is that new technology has resulted in steady declines in emissions from coal combustion. In addition, there is greater use of low sulfur coals.

Great care is also being taken by coal companies to restore the land which is temporarily disturbed during mining. Though coal mining alters the landscape, most national laws now require all mined land to be restored to its original condition. Most mining companies plan the reclamation process before they even start digging. In many cases the land is left in better condition than before mining started.