By Kyle G. Crider
It has been claimed that “coal saved the forests, oil saved the whales.”
Whether or not this is true – and I must leave you to do your own research on this interesting topic – it is quite true that coal’s birth in Britain as an energy source was precipitated by another energy crisis: deforestation. A November 1977 Scientific American article (PDF) explains:
"This transition from woodcutting to coal mining as the main source of heat was part of an early British economic revolution. The first energy crisis, which has much to do with the crisis we now face, was a crisis of deforestation.
"The adoption of coal changed the economic history of Britain, then of the rest of Europe and finally of the world. It led to the Industrial Revolution, which got under way in Britain in the last two decades of the 18th century. The substitution of coal for wood between 1550 and 1700 led to new methods of manufacturing, to the expansion of existing industries and to the exploitation of untapped natural resources."
"It was one day, as I was Walking in Your Majesties Palace at White-Hall, ... that a presumptuous Smoake . . . did so invade the Court that ... Men could hardly discern one another for the Clowd, and none could support, without manifest Inconveniency. This smoke, he explained, came from one or two Tunnels (smokestacks) nearby, indangering as well the Health [of the king and his subjects] as it sullies the Glory of this ... Imperial Seat. And what is all this, but that Hellish and dismall Cloud of Sea-Coale, an impure and thick Mist, accompanied with a fuliginous and filthy vapour, which renders them obnoxious to a thousand inconveniences, corrupting the Lungs, and disordering the entire habit of their Bodies, causing Catharrs, Phthisicks, Coughs and Consumptions [to] rage more in this one City, than in the whole Earth besides."
This is not just a developing-world problem due to coal- and wood-fired cook stoves. Desmogblog lists the following facts from the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Clean Energy report:
A typical-sized 500 megawatt coal-fired electricity plant in the United States puts out each year:
"Hundred-million year-old sunlight has heated our homes and powered our factories for decades. Today, that energy is delivered less often by the friendly neighborhood coal man and more by the ubiquitous electrical grid: About 39 percent of U.S. electricity is generated by burning coal. All that combustion carries a cost, though, as the carbon previously trapped underground in long-dead plants becomes greenhousing carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere."
For example, at Widows Creek – site of a former coal-fired power plant, which Google recently announced is to become one of its newest renewable-energy-powered data centers – fish consumption advisories range from “do not eat any” to no more than one meal per month, defined as “one meal of fish = a half pound or 8 ounces (raw) of fish.”
Coal is facing hard times, and not just in Alabama, where according to a July 18, 2015 AL.com article, Birmingham-based Walter Energy “filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection with $5 billion in debts on Wednesday, a number topping Jefferson County’s bankruptcy and any other coal company in the country since prices started dropping in 2012.” But for coal, the handwriting (that coal had been weighed in the balance, and found wanting) had been visible on the wall for some time. For example, a March 24, 2015 the Guardian reported that “the U.S. coal sector is in a ‘structural decline’ which has sent 26 companies bust in the last three years.”
Andrew Grant, co-author of the report cited by the Guardian, explains: “The roof has fallen in on U.S. coal, and alarm bells should be ringing for investors in related sectors around the world. These first tremors are amongst the clearest signs yet of a seismic shift in energy markets, as high carbon fuels are set to be increasingly outperformed by lower carbon alternatives.”
Of course, King Coal would like to lay the blame for its woes on those upstarts and rogues Obama, environmentalists and the Clean Power Plan. However, even the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post know that the picture isn’t that simplistic. ‘Twas economics, not politics that deposed the king.' And we will all be able to breathe (and eat) a little easier for it.
Image credits: 1) Flickr/Roger W 2) Alabama Department of Public Health
Kyle G. Crider is Energy Project Manager for the Alabama Environmental Council and the Alabama Solar Knowledge project. Kyle holds a bachelors in Environmental Studies and a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree with a double-emphasis in Urban Planning & Policy Analysis. He is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND).