A coal-fired power plant is a power plant that burns coal to generate electricity; currently around 50% of the electricity generated in the United States comes from coal-fired plants. Machinery within the plant converts the energy from coal combustion (heat) into mechanical energy, which operates an electrical generator. Byproducts of electricity production from coal-fired plants include nitrogen, nitrous oxides, sulfur oxides, fly ash and mercury. Ash from coal-fired boilers must also be removed and disposed of.
Coal-fired power plants are major emitters of greenhouse gases, which according to general scientific consensus is directly responsible for some of the global warming that has occurred over the last 100 years.
International agencies are concerned with the impact on the environment due to the burning of fossil fuels, and coal in particular. In addition to being connected with global warming, the burning of coal contributes the most to acid rain and air pollution. Acid rain is a result of the emission of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide in the air, compounds themselves are only mildly acidic, but when they react with the atmosphere, they create acidic compounds such as sulfurous acid, nitric acid, and sulfuric acid.
Coal-fired power plants are also major producers of nuclear waste and environmental contamination by nuclear emissions. The naturally occurring radioactive isotopes present in coal in trace quantities add up when burned in large quantities. A 1000 MW coal-fired plant can release up to 5.2 tons of uranium per year and 12.8 tons of thorium. This is 100 times greater than a comparable nuclear power plant with the same electrical output (wikipedia).
In addition to the environmental problems caused by coal-fired power plants, they also have major negative health impacts.
Particulate matter from coal-fired power plants have been shown in studies to increase the rate of respiratory and cardiac mortality. The particulates can increase instances of asthma, chronic bronchitis, and other respiratory ailments because they irritate the airways in the lungs. Government regulations currently do not cover ultrafine particles, yet they pose many dangers.
Coal-fired power plants are extremely detrimental to the environment as well as human health, and current government regulations simply do not protect against the hazards presented by them. Citizen’s Coal Council is currently working with environmental groups across the country to address the problem of coal-fired power plants, bringing national attention to the problems presented by them, and assisting communities in bringing about much needed change so we can all live greener, breathe cleaner air, and provide a better future for generations to come.
Links with more information:
- Environmental Defense Fund: Coal-fired Power plants are big contributors to sooty particle pollution in Eastern U.S.
- Source Watch – Existing U.S. Coal Plants
- Energy.justice – Clean Coal Power Energy Justice Factsheet
- Physicians for Social Responsibility – Coal-Fired Power Plants – Understand the Health Costs of a Dirty Energy Source