The coal industry and its government allies want to you believe that coal is cheap, coal is clean, and coal is the solution to energy poverty. The coal industry spends millions of dollars per year propagating these myths, with the sole intention of convincing citizens, utilities and governments that continued investment in coal is inevitable. Yet contrary to what the industry would like you to believe, coal is dirty, it kills, its expensive, and it exacerbates poverty.
Myth 1: Coal is Cheap
Coal is only considered cheap because coal plants do not have to pay for the full social and environmental costs of coal burning on people’s health, the natural environment, and our climate. These costs, known as “externalities”, would double or triple the price of electricity from coal according to a Harvard University study, making renewables much cheaper. In China, mortality from air pollution is now valued at 10% of GDP. A recent IMF assessment put global coal subsidies at $539 billion annually, which includes the costs of managing the environmental and health impacts of coal.
Even without factoring in these externalities, the price of renewables is becoming increasingly competitive with coal. Wind power is now cheaper than coal in many markets; in the United States it’s now half the price of existing coal plants. In India, the cost of solar and wind is already cheaper than building coal plants using imported coal. And a modern coal plant using advanced pollution controls produces electricity at around 9-10 cents/kilowatt hour, making it more expensive than many other options.
Even though the coal industry likes to talk about “clean coal”, it works to prevent pollution standards being adopted at the national level precisely because it makes coal more expensive than other options. Building coal plants today locks in a reliance on this dirty fuel for 40 to 50 years. Coal prices are volatile and unpredictable: once constructed, a plant will have limited options over the next 40 to 50 years for sourcing and transporting its coal requirements, reducing flexibility and exposing it to significant coal price risks.
Myth 2: Coal is Clean
When the industry talks about “clean coal,” it is referring to a range of technologies that burn coal more efficiently, and pollution controls that remove some of the nastiest pollutants from the smokestack. Yet even the most efficient coal-fired power plants only operate at around 44% efficiency, meaning that 56% of the energy content of the coal is lost. These plants emit 15 times more carbon dioxide than renewable energy systems and twice as much CO2 as gas-fired power plants.
Pollution controls can remove sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxides, PM2.5 and mercury from the smokestacks. However, installing these pollution controls can add hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost of a new coal plant, making them more expensive than other renewable options, and discouraging their adoption. Today many countries continue to build new coal plants and run existing coal plants without modern pollution controls, seriously affecting the health of their citizens.
While pollution controls can remove a lot of the toxic waste from the smokestake, these toxins end up in the coal ash. This ash is stored in waste ponds or landfills which leach sulfur dioxide and heavy metals into surface and groundwater. Studies in the United States show an increase in water pollution after installation of scrubbers on coal plants.
The coal industry advocates that carbon capture and storage (CCS) can reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. However, CCS is an unproven technology which has not yet been implemented at a large-scale fossil fuel plant. The greatest barrier to CCS is its economic viability. Between 25-40% more coal would be required to produce the same amount of energy using this technology. Consequently, more coal would be mined, transported, processed and burned, increasing the amount of air pollution and hazardous waste generated by coal plants. The cost of construction of CCS facilities and the “energy penalty” would almost double the costs of electricity generation from coal, making it economically unviable.
Furthermore, there are considerable questions about the technical viability of CCS. It is unclear whether CO2 can be permanently sequestered underground and what seismic risks underground storage poses.
Ultimately, coal cannot be considered “clean” when you factor in the air and water pollution generated by coal mining, preparation, transport and combustion. Pollution from the coal life cycle harms human health and the environment. Clean coal is a dirty lie.
Myth 3: Coal Alleviates Energy Poverty
In a desperate struggle for survival and relevance in a rapidly changing world, the coal industry has resorted to a public relations campaign claiming that coal is needed to alleviate energy poverty in the Global South. But the claims of the industry are disingenuous.
Coal is clearly not the way to deliver modern energy services to those who lack them. Most of the 1.3 billion people without access to modern energy services live beyond the reach of the electricity grid. Without massive investment in poles and wires, boosting coal-fired generation capacity will do little for rural and remote communities. Studies in India show that those regions with the highest number of coal power plants also have the highest number of people without access to the grid. In other words, large coal power plants are being built to supply power not to those without it, but to industry and the middle classes. Moreover, communities that live closest to power plants are kept in the dark.
According to a study conducted by Oil Change International, none of the coal power plants funded by the World Bank in the period 2008 to 2010 led to improved energy access for the poor. On the other hand, studies show that off-grid decentralised renewable energy systems can deliver household energy services faster and more cheaply than coal and other centralised generation sources, and without harming health or sacrificing clean air and water. In Kenya, to connect to the grid can cost one household between $900 and $4000. For just $900, this same household could purchase a home solar system capable of powering lights, computers, fans, charging cell-phones and a small refrigerator – without the monthly bills and reliability issues of the grid.
The coal industry also argues that increasing the use of coal-fired power will improve health outcomes in developing countries, including by reducing air pollution from wood fires. Yet coal-fired power is a major contributor to poor air quality, killing hundreds of thousands of people per year and affecting the health of millions more. Add into this the 5 degrees of global warming that would be caused by the coal industry’s rapid expansion, and the health impacts on billions of people would be truly staggering.