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The Importance of Coal

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Did You Know?
Canadian coal is exported to over 20 countries on five continents with an annual value in excess of $3 billion.
 

Queens Insitute for Energy and Environmental Policy

Facts About Coal

                                                                          

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  • Coal is the world's most abundant fossil fuel - more plentiful than oil and natural gas. It is second only to oil as a source of energy that we use. Coal is widely used because it's easily obtained, there's lots of it, it's well distributed throughout the world, and it has a high energy content. 

  • Coal has many important uses, but most significantly in electricity generation, steel and cement manufacture, and industrial process heating.

  • Coal provides over 23% of global primary energy needs. It generates around 39% of the world's electricity. Almost 70% of total global steel production is dependent on coal. 

  • There are four main types of coal and all are found in Canada: anthracite, bituminous, sub-bituminous, and lignite. 

  • There is more stored energy in Canadian coal than all the country's oil, natural gas, and oil sands combined.

  • Canada exports about 28 million tonnes of coal annually to more than 20 countries. 

  • Coal is our single largest export to Japan, our second largest trading partner.

  • Each year Canada produces enough coal to fill the Sky Dome in Toronto every week for an entire year.

  • The international trade in coal has expanded faster over the last decade than trade in any other commodity.

  • On a national basis, coal-fired plants are the most important sources of fossil-fuel generated electricity in Canada.

  • Coal is the major fuel source for electric power generation worldwide. More than half of total world coal production provides around 39% of the world's electricity.

  • Electricity generation from coal is now 8 times more efficient than at the turn of the last century. Coal is the single largest commodity carried by Canadian railways.

  • Canada ranks tenth in the world in total coal reserves with 4 billion tonnes of bituminous coal. That's coal covering a football field to a height of about 4,500 kilometers! 

  • Worldwide, more electricity is generated from coal than any other source.

  • Coal is also indispensible for iron and steel production. About 600 million tonnes of coal-equivalent to approximately 16% of total hard coal production, is currently utilized by the steel industry. 

  • Canadian coal is exported to 21 countries on five continents with an annual value of approximately $2 billion.

Did You Know?
Directly and indirectly, the Canadian coal industry employs over 20,000 men and women from coast to coast. As a result of our efforts, coal is now Canada's single largest export to Japan, and the growth of our industry has helped fund major improvements to our railroads and ports. It's all part of our commitment to being competitive and building a stronger future for Canadian industry.

How Coal was formed.

Coal is a combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock composed mostly of carbon and hydrocarbons. It is the most abundant fossil fuel produced in the United States.

Coal is a nonrenewable energy source because it takes millions of years to create. The energy in coal comes from the energy stored by plants that lived hundreds of millions of years ago, when the earth was partly covered with swampy forests. For millions of years, a layer of dead plants at the bottom of the swamps was covered by layers of water and dirt, trapping the energy of the dead plants. The heat and pressure from the top layers helped the plant remains turn into what we today call coal.

Three images showing how coal was formed.The first iimage is of a swamp, 300 million years ago. Before the dinosaurs, many giant plants died ins swamps.

The second image is of water, 100 million years ago. Over millions of years, these plants were buried under water and dirt.

The third image is of rocks and dirt over the coal. Heat and pressure turned the dead plants into coal.

Mining the Coal

Coal miners use giant machines to remove coal from the ground. They use two methods: surface or underground mining. Many U.S. coal beds are very near the ground's surface, and about two-thirds of coal production comes from surface mines.  Modern mining methods allow us to easily reach most of our coal reserves. Due to growth in surface mining and improved mining technology, the amount of coal produced by one miner in one hour has more than tripled since 1978.

Diagram of surface mining. A huge backhoe digs through the top soil, the overburden and then into a shallow coal seam. Surface mining is used to produce most of the coal in the U.S. because it is less expensive than underground mining. Surface mining can be used when the coal is buried less than 200 feet underground. In surface mining, giant machines remove the top-soil and layers of rock to expose large beds of coal. Once the mining is finished, the dirt and rock are returned to the pit, the topsoil is replaced, and the area is replanted. Artist's rendering of a typical deep mine.The land can then be used for croplands, wildlife habitats, recreation, or offices or stores.

Underground mining, sometimes called deep mining, is used when the coal is buried several hundred feet below the surface. Some underground mines are 1,000 feet deep. To remove coal in these underground mines, miners ride elevators down deep mine shafts where they run machines that dig out the coal. Read about a visit to a real underground coal mine.

Processing the Coal

After coal comes out of the ground, it typically goes on a conveyor belt to a preparation plant that is located at the mining site. The plant cleans and processes coal to remove dirt, rock, ash, sulfur, and other unwanted materials, increasing the heating value of the coal.

Transportation of Coal.
 
After coal is mined and processed, it is ready to be shipped to market. The cost of shipping coal can cost more than the cost of mining it.

Most coal is transported by train, but coal can also be transported by barge, ship, truck, and even pipeline. Almost 60 percent of coal in the U.S. is transported, for at least part of its trip to market, by train. It is cheaper to transport coal on river barges, but barges cannot take coal everywhere that it needs to go. If the coal will be used near the coal mine, it can be moved by trucks and conveyors. Coal can also be crushed, mixed with water, and sent through a "slurry" pipeline. Sometimes, coal-fired electric power plants are built near coal mines to lower transportation costs.

Types of Coal.

Coal is classified into four main types, or ranks (lignite, subbituminous, bituminous, anthracite), depending on the amounts and types of carbon it contains and on the amount of heat energy it can produce. The rank of a deposit of coal depends on the pressure and heat acting on the plant debris as it sank deeper and deeper over millions of years. For the most part, the higher ranks of coal contain more heat-producing energy.

Lignite is the lowest rank of coal with the lowest energy content. Lignites tend to be relatively young coal deposits that were not subjected to extreme heat or pressure. Lignite is crumbly and has high moisture content. About eight percent of the coal produced in the United States is lignite, and most of it comes from Texas and North Dakota. Lignite is mainly burned at power plants to generate electricity.

Subbituminous coal has a higher heating value than lignite. Subbituminous coal typically contains 35-45 percent carbon, compared to 25-35 percent for lignite. Most subbituminous coal in the U.S. is at least 100 million years old. Over 40 percent of the coal produced in the United States is subbituminous.

Bituminous coal contains 45-86 percent carbon, and has two to three times the heating value of lignite. Bituminous coal was formed under high heat and pressure. Bituminous coal in the United States is between 100 to 300 million years old. It is the most abundant rank of coal found in the United States, accounting for about half of U.S. coal production. Bituminous coal is used to generate electricity and is an important fuel and raw material for the steel and iron industries.

Anthracite contains 86-97 percent carbon and its heating value is slightly lower than bituminous coal. Anthracite is very rare in the United States. The only anthracite mines in the United States are located in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Link to more information of types of coal

Listed below are several articles/reports and links related to coal.

CO2 Fact Sheet Voluntary Actions for a Cleaner Environment - Partners for Affordable Energy 

click here to download file

World Coal Institute - Coal: Meeting Global Challenges

click here to download file

The Coal Association of Canada

Coal Facts and Information

Cleaner Coal Technologies

Coal Links

Coal Demand

About Coal

Virtual Coal Mine Tour

Cleaning up Coal