AskPablo: Coal-Fired Power Plants

This week I am going to examine the world of coal-fired power plants. Coal is an energy-dense substance found deep underground. Like oil and natural gas it is made from prehistoric organisms and biomass under intense heat and pressure. The living precursors to these fuels sequestered CO2 from the atmosphere, as plants do today, and have locked it away for millions of years, making the atmosphere conducive to life as we know it. In extracting and combusting these fuels we are returning that CO2 into the atmosphere. Is one fuel just as bad as the others or is coal just evil? Let’s look at some numbers and find out.

In addition to vast amounts of carbon, coal also contains trace amounts of toxic substances such as heavy metals. These heavy metals include mercury, which I discussed in a previous column (“AskPablo: Mercury in Compact Flourescent Bulbs”). When burned, coal releases between 200 and 230 pounds of CO2 per MMBtu (One Million British Thermal Units, or 10 Decatherms). Compare this to natural gas, which releases 116 pounds of CO2 per MMBtu, or gasoline at 155 pounds of CO2 per MMBtu. For your reference, every 3,412 Btu represent one kWh of delivered electricity.
So, a coal-fired power plant emits roughly twice as much CO2 as a natural gas-fired power plant. According to the US EPA E-Grid the average coal-fired power plant has a capacity of 600 MW but only operates at 75% capacity, resulting in 4 million MWh/year. Electricity production from all sources in the US average 3 pounds of NOx per MWh, 6 pounds of SOx per MWh, and 1,515 pounds of CO2 per MWh (delivered). For coal the emissions factor is around 2,000 lbs per MWh. At this emissions factor and 4 million MWh/year, the average US coal-fired power plant emits 4 million US tons of CO2 per year.
smog_beijing.jpeThe average US passenger vehicle emits 12,100 pounds of CO2 per year. The average coal-fired power plant is equivalent to 660,000 cars. If every person in the US had a car, or 300 millions cars, this would be equal 454 coal-fired power plants.
From a previous AskPablo: If every household in the US replaced one incandescent bulb with a CFL we could turn off 1 coal-fired power plant, assuming 3 hours per day of use. How did I get this? Well, if you replace one 60W incandescent bulb with a 23W CFL you are saving 37W. 37W x 3 hours/day x 365 days/year x 110,000,000 households in the US = 4,456,650,000 kWh/year, or $668,497,500! A typical coal fired power plant generates 4,000,000MWh/year. To find out how many power plants we could eliminate we simply divide the energy savings by the energy generated by a power plant (4,456,650MWh / 4,000,000MWh). This shows that, if every household in the US replaced one incandescent bulb with a CFL, we could turn off 1 coal-fired power plant.
In another previous AskPablo (“AskPablo: Phantom Power”) I calculated that households in the US probably waste around 34,913,913 MWh/year to phantom energy losses from power supplies and appliance on standby mode (TV, VCR, Microwave Oven, etc.). If we could unplug all of these it would eliminate the need for almost 9 coal-fired power plants (34,913,913 MWh / 4,000,000 MWh). Amory Lovins frequently states 11 coal-fired power plants, so his assumptions must be similar to mine.
This is all great information to know but the sad thing is that China is currently building around 1 coal-fired power plant per week! In fact the Chinese government doesn’t even know the full extent of new power plant construction. What they do know is that there is a near-permanent cloud of smog of vast past of the country, part of which even impacts air quality in the Western US. Coal is clearly not the solution to our problems. Not even so-called “clean coal” can save us. To prevent the further accumulation of bad stuff in the air we need to keep it locked away safely underground where it belongs and instead rely on abundant and clean renewable energy available on the surface.

Pablo Päster

Sustainability Engineer

16 responses

  1. Soon, all the fossil fuel deposits in the world will be exausted and we will plunge into an energy crisis, unless alternative sources can be used. I’d like to think that when that happens, carbon dioxide emissions will no longer be an issue (at least if climate change is bearable). What else can we do, if all the stored CO2 in fossil fuels is already released into the air? Let’s hope there are enough natural self-regulating factors, like trees, left on the Earth to keep the cycle going. If not, there should be more climate sinks established beginning now.
    Europe’s first climate sink inaugurated in Monaco:
    – Alvin from TheScienceDesk at

  2. Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency…. if people don’t do it by themselves, we need to just crank up the cost of fuel/energy. That may be the only way to get people to listen! I’ll keep riding my bike to work and chuckle!

  3. Just one more comment if I may.
    I’ve just noticed a comment by alvinwriter: “Soon, all the fossil fuel deposits in the world will be exausted and we will plunge into an energy crisis…”
    This might be true about crude oil and natural gas but not about coal. We have enough coal to keep us going for about 200 years, maybe longer. (See “The Little Green Handbook: Seven trends shaping the future of our planet”)
    Our potential for killing ourselves is practically unlimited. If we continue using fossil fuels, we are likely to be dead before we exhaust all their deposits.

  4. Well Edmund, that’s actually considered to be good and not “only…a third”. Typically, 35% efficiency is considered average. There are limits to what you can do from thermodynamics. Entropy and all that.


  6. Water can be used..but is water available in the required amounts….water is being sold for drinknig so do u think it it sustainable to use water for generation power by constructing a dam…? It depends on the availability of water i suppose. I understand that fossil fuels do create a lot of pollution but how much power are we using legibily. Do we turn off the fan, lamp, heater and other utilities when not in use. Have a thought about it…friends…

  7. I do believe that we’re all concern about the harsh effects of using fossil fuels in our atmosphere. I just hope that more and more people will try to understand the situation. Information and communication campaign may be a great move to do our part as responsible citizens.

  8. Efficiency is getting the same benefit by using less resources. We are not using too much energy. We are wasting too much energy. If it takes 0 kWh to bring sunlight into the building (after application is installed), everything else, even LED would be a waste of energy. If we can have a building which can use 30% less energy to maintain comfort levels, those 30% are just being wasted without any benefit gained.
    And the last, if I can get from point A to point B safely at satisfactory speed using 0 gallons of gasoline, everything else will be a waste. [we’ll have to use electricity from clean sources for these vehicles for this statement to be true to its fullest extent]

  9. I am sorry…you guys need to wake up and smell the coffe…all of your ideas are wonderful in a fairie tale land, but, the fact of the matter is …. we are stuck with what we were given…it is important to utilize a more efficient method of producing power…. but we will never live to see those changes make a difference… because it will take the next 50 – 100 years to develop and ensure these new methods… so i guess the bottom line is try making the process that we currently have more efficient and less harmful to our environment until a better method is proven…sorry guys but we are stuck with it….the only thing we can do is get a head start for our children

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