Research & Commentary: Coal Power

Published October 7, 2013

Coal, a black or brownish rock made from highly compressed plants that lived and died hundreds of millions of years ago, is the most plentiful fossil fuel in current use. The levelized cost (estimated cost assuming equal tax treatment) of electricity from conventional coal technology is 3.79 cents per kWH and for clean coal technology is 4.37 kWH, cheaper than all other fossil fuels and far cheaper than wind (6.64 kWH) and solar thermal (18.82 kWH). Coal is not only cheap and plentiful but also has extremely high energy density and is not controlled by any OPEC-like cartels. These factors have helped make coal a key factor for economic modernization.

The United States has the world’s largest coal reserves, with enough in its lower 48 states to power the country for the next 485 years at current rates of consumption, according to the Institute for Energy Research (IER). IER reports more than 90 percent of the coal consumed in the United States is used to generate electricity, but it is also a basic source for making steel, cement, and paper and is used in other industries as well.

Because coal is made from highly compressed plants, it contains natural plant elements, such as nitrogen and sulfur, which can be harmful in large quantities. The Sierra Club refers to coal as a “dirty, outdated” energy source and is actively campaigning to abolish it, claiming to have prevented 150 coal-fired power plants from being built. In addition to special-interest campaigns, the Environmental Protection Agency is threatening coal via new regulations on waste and air pollution.

Technological advances and industry action have made new coal plants cleaner than ever. In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, IER Senior Fellow Mary J. Hutzler said, “According to the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), for example, a new pulverized-coal plant reduces the emission of nitrogen oxides (NOx) by 86 percent, sulfur dioxide (SO2) by 98 percent, and particulate matter by 99.8 percent, as compared with a similar plant having no pollution controls.” IER reports since 1970, total emissions of EPA’s six criteria pollutants have declined by 71 percent even though energy consumption has increased by 44 percent.

Cheap energy has environmental benefits that are often not taken into account in public debates. It enables technological advancements that improve the environment. Water purification plants, irrigation systems, indoor plumbing, and centralized power plants are just a few of the many technological advances made possible by cheap and reliable energy.

Conventional and clean coal technologies are the cheapest forms of electricity generation available. Policymakers can preserve and enhance environmental quality while encouraging robust economic growth by allowing the use of cheap, reliable energy rather than imposing subsidies, mandates, bans, and regulations. 

The following documents provide additional information about coal and energy production.


Ten Principles of Energy Policy
Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast outlines the ten most important principles for policymakers confronting energy issues, providing guidance to help deal with ongoing changes in markets, technology, and policies adopted in other states, supported by a thorough bibliography.

Hard Facts: An Energy Primer
On page 30 of this 102 publication from the Institute for Energy Research, Director of Regulatory and State Affairs Daniel Simmons extrapolates data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration to offer a primer on coal production and use. 

Current State and Future Direction of Coal-Fired Power in the Eastern Interconnection
In this U.S. Department of Energy-funded study, consulting firm ICF International found between 35 and 60 gigawatts (GW) of coal capacity is “expected to be shut down within the next three to five years because installing control equipment to become compliant will not be cost-effective, particularly in the face of low gas prices and potential future GHG restrictions.” The study includes a state-by-state analysis of coal units and coal-fired capacity.

Coal 101: What’s Wrong with Coal?
A National Sierra Club video refers to coal as a “dirty, outdated” fuel source and a “main contributor to climate disruption.” According to the video, coal mining ruins the environment and dumps waste into streams, and the burning of coal generates smog and leads to health problems. The Sierra Club also claims 140 million tons of allegedly toxic waste called “coal ash” gets generated every year and is stored in pits across the country. 

How Coal Improves Our Environment
Alex Epstein from the Center for Industrial Progress gives the opening keynote at the American Coal Council conference, saying someone from a pre-coal environment who time-traveled to today’s world would be shocked not only by our standard of living but also by the environmental quality made possible by water purification plants, irrigation systems, indoor plumbing, centralized power plants, and several other technologies that came about only through access to cheap, reliable energy. 

Humanity Unbound: How Fossil Fuels Saved Humanity from Nature and Nature from Humanity
Indur M. Goklany, Ph.D., chronicles how fossil fuels, as imperfect as they are, have augmented or displaced people’s reliance on living nature for food, clothing, and mechanical power, and by doing so have greatly improved life expectancy and living standards while protecting nature from greater human intervention. 

Yergin: Energy History Repeats Itself
Pulitzer Prize-winning author and energy historian Daniel Yergin discusses the World Energy Timeline he created to trace the history of energy starting from the construction of a twelfth century windmill to the power outages that followed Superstorm Sandy. Yergin says what struck him most was how certain themes tend to repeat themselves, including many periods when people thought they were running out of energy only to reach a technological breakthrough that opened new doors. 

Research & Commentary: Mining Regulation
Heartland Institute Policy Analyst Taylor Smith examines the role the mining industry plays in the economy and describes the most effective ways to regulate the industry. 

IER Senior Fellows Testifies on Benefits of U.S. Coal Production
In testimony before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources on July 9, 2013, Institute for Energy Research Distinguished Senior Fellow Mary Hutzler explains the benefits of using America’s vast coal reserves, the advancements industry has made in mitigating pollution, and how federal policy ignores many of these facts. 

Dirty But Essential—That’s Coal
In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Robert Bryce examines the essential and sometimes-overlooked role coal plays in our lives, how it has become deeply embedded in modern life, and why no energy source is likely to make the use of coal unnecessary any time soon.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Environment & Climate News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland Institute Policy Analyst Taylor Smith at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.