Coal Basics

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A coal-fired power plant in Westport, Kentucky on the Ohio River. Image Copyright © Michael Collier. http://www.earthscienceworld.org/images
A coal-fired power plant in Westport, Kentucky on the Ohio River. Image Copyright © Michael Collier. http://www.earthscienceworld.org/images
  • A coal-fired power plant in Westport, Kentucky on the Ohio River. Image Copyright © Michael Collier. http://www.earthscienceworld.org/images
  • An example of anthracite coal, the purest grade of coal. Image Copyright © Dr. Richard Busch

Coal is a rich source of energy formed from plants that grew in swamps tens to hundreds of millions of years ago. The plants were buried deeply under younger and younger layers of dirt and rock, heated, and compressed into a carbon-rich rock.[1] Burning coal releases more carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced than any other fossil fuel.[2]

Why does coal matter?

The United States has more estimated recoverable coal reserves than any other nation except China and is a net exporter of coal. In 2015, coal provided 33% of the electricity consumed across the country, and 91% of coal produced in the United States was used to generate electricity.[3]

How does geoscience inform decisions about coal?

Geoscientists locate coal resources, assess coal deposit volume and extent, and determine coal quality and composition for use in different industrial processes.[4,5] Geoscientists also study the impacts of coal production and consumption on air and water quality, and work on the remediation of land and water that have been affected by coal production.

References

1Coal Explained, EIA, www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=coal_home

2How much carbon dioxide is produced when different fuels are burned? EIA, www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=73&t=11

3Use of Coal, EIA, https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.php?page=coal_use

4Coal Assessments Overview, USGS Energy Resources Program, https://energy.usgs.gov/Coal/AssessmentsandData/CoalAssessments.aspx#378437-overview

5Coal Quality Overview, USGS Energy Resources Program, https://energy.usgs.gov/Coal/AssessmentsandData/CoalQuality.aspx#379661-overview

Learn More

Introductory Resources

  • Coal Explained (Webpage), Energy Information Administration
    Web overview of how coal was formed, types of coal, coal production (mining, processing, and transporting), where U.S. coal comes from, imports and exports, how much coal is left, uses of coal, prices and price outlook, and environmental impacts of coal.
     
  • What You Need to Know: Fossil Fuels (Webpage), The National Academies
    An in-depth overview of the current role of each fossil fuel energy source in the United States, the benefits and disadvantages of each energy source, and opportunities and challenges for using that energy source in the future. (Discusses coal, oil, and natural gas.)
     
  • What You Need to Know: Advanced Coal Technologies (Webpage), The National Academies
    An overview of new technologies to increase the efficiency of electricity generation and reduce the CO2 emissions from coal.

Resources for Educators

Frequently Asked Questions

2017-05-17