See Inside September 2006

What to Do about Coal

Cheap, plentiful coal is expected to fuel power plants for the foreseeable future, but can we keep it from devastating the environment?

More than most people realize, dealing with climate change means addressing the problems posed by emissions from coal-fired power plants. Unless humanity takes prompt action to strictly limit the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere when consuming coal to make electricity, we have little chance of gaining control over global warming.

Coal--the fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution--is a particularly worrisome source of energy, in part because burning it produces considerably more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated than burning either oil or natural gas does. In addition, coal is cheap and will remain abundant long after oil and natural gas have become very scarce. With coal plentiful and inexpensive, its use is burgeoning in the U.S. and elsewhere and is expected to continue rising in areas with abundant coal resources. Indeed, U.S. power providers are expected to build the equivalent of nearly 280 500-megawatt, coal-fired electricity plants between 2003 and 2030. Meanwhile China is already constructing the equivalent of one large coal-fueled power station a week. Over their roughly 60-year life spans, the new generating facilities in operation by 2030 could collectively introduce into the atmosphere about as much carbon dioxide as was released by all the coal burned since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

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