Coal Energy: Bane or Boon?

Mpumalanga, a province located in the east of South Africa, is the home to eleven coal-fired power stations owned by Eskom, a South African electricity public utility. Katerina lives in Witbank, a small town in Mpumalanga. Like many other people who live in her neighborhood, she has to worry about the air pollution brought by coal mining around her house. Dust is the major problem for her – the water that they have access to is full of dust and her son’s chest is also filled with dust. A study of air quality in Witbank by a team of scientists from the European Union suggests that Witbank’s air is the world’s dirtiest. Figure 1 is a diagram of current coal and air situation in Mpumalanga.

Figure 1: Coal Mining in Mpumalanga

Figure 1: Coal Mining in Mpumalanga

Almost all the disadvantages of coal can be seen in this area. Not only can coal mining be harmful to human health, but also can cause death. A report by Eskom shows that air pollution caused by its coal mining is killing more than 20 people annually. The coal mining is destroying both animal habitats and human communities. The worst impact of coal in this area is that 37 million tons of CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere by the Kusile power plant, which contributes to climate change.

During my research for the past week, it bothered me to see that the coal is still largely used as a main energy resource in the world, even in the United States. So do people not care about the damages that coal can possibly make? Or does coal just have too many advantages to be replaced?

Figure 2: Everything You Needed To Know About That Lump Of Coal In Your Christmas-Stocking

Figure 2: Everything You Needed To Know About That Lump Of Coal In Your Christmas-Stocking

Figure 2 shows things that one needs to know about coal. Indeed, there are many advantages of coal. First of all, it is a very cheap energy source compared to others. Price of coal from many places is very affordable. It also does not cost too much to build power plants that use coal as a major source. Second, coal is ubiquitous. Coal can be found in many different parts of the world. The three major countries that are abundant in coal are the United State, China and India. The abundance of coal also enables people to build power plants wherever coalmine is. Third, it is a relatively reliable source. The energy based on coal can be produced continuously while other renewable energy like solar and wind is not quite stable.

If we cannot find another energy source to replace coal, what can we do? The most important thing is definitely to improve efficiency level of coal use. According to World Coal Association, 1% improvement of efficiency of a coal-fired plant can result in 2-3% reduction of CO2 emission. Sadly, the efficiency of the most efficient coal-fired plants is only 45% while the global average is 33%. I believe that developing a more efficient coal-fired plant is urgent considering the damages that coal is making to our planet. While we care about our energy source, it is also necessary for us to think of the way that we are using energy in daily life. Therefore, educating people how to efficiently use energy is so important and it is the ultimate goal of my team’s energy challenge project.

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