Few consumers heat their homes directly with coal, though historic homes may still contain the coal bins and coal chutes needed for coal delivery and powering boilers.
Generations ago one shoveled coal into the boiler and hoped it would last through the night or through the day. The changes to oil-fired and natural-gas-fired boilers were lauded by those who had to shovel the coal. With so many homes today heated by forced-air systems and heat pumps, it may surprise some to learn how prevalent coal-generated power still is for many consumers.
Coal is the primary fuel source for 39 percent of electricity generated nationwide followed by natural gas (30%), nuclear (19%) and renewable (12%), according to the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA).
In addition to electricity, U.S. consumers directly use natural gas, heating oil, propane, kerosene and wood to heat their homes.
This winter there have been problems with oil and propane. Propane prices have gone up by more than 180 percent, providing one can even still find any to buy. In areas not served by natural gas, tanks of propane are often the heating and cooking answer for about five percent of consumers. Some six percent nationwide (though the highest concentration of consumers is in the northeast) use oil to heat their homes. Both propane and heating oil prices are hovering around $4 a gallon.
National Geographic related the story of a Wisconsin woman who had prepaid for her heating season of propane only to learn her supplier had nothing left to deliver when her tank emptied. The supplier told her to get electric heaters, but there were none left. She had been forced to drain her pipes and move in with a friend who still had heat. In northeast Wisconsin, National Geographic said, propane prices were even higher—as high as $7 a gallon.
National Geographic reported: “The strain on propane supply was caused by a number of events. According to the National Propane Gas Association, the crisis is a result of a 2013 rise in U.S. propane exports, increased agricultural demand during the crop drying season, rail rerouting that stalled Canadian imports, and repairs on the Canadian Cochin pipeline that passes through the United States en route from Alberta to Ontario.”
A Wall Street Journal (WSJ) feature about the Future of Coal reported that some coal companies had major layoffs and others sold off mines. and some went out of business. “But coal isn’t going away.” According to the article, coal mining is booming in Wyoming (where two counties in Wyoming produce 40 percent of U.S. coal) and under the great plains of Illinois and Indiana. As in many industries, it takes fewer people to mine more coal.
The WSJ story reported that the use of natural gas for power generation had gone up 17 percent from a decade earlier while coal use in the United States dropped from 55 percent of electricity generation since 1990. In the United States hydraulic fracturing has spurred natural gas production and will likely increase the use of natural gas in electricity generation.
Canada formerly used the most U.S. coal; now demand is highest in the Netherlands, Britain and China. As a global business, coal industry is looking long term. Local U.S. mine divestiture is being replaced by mines in Australia and other places better suited to delivering a heavy product to places such as high-demand markets like China.
An article in the Earth Techling newsletter describes China as “a coal lover.” Though China is lauded for its increasing use of renewables, such as wind and solar, the Earth Techling article pointed out that “fossil energy output, most of it coal, exceeded new wind energy by six times and solar by 27 times.
Because of demand in China and India, coal is predicted “to surpass oil as the world's dominant fuel source, according to a recent study by consultant Wood Mackenzie,” the WSJ reported.
Today the globe consumes about 5 billion tons of coal. Predictions vary, depending on how environmental concerns will play out. Demand could drop to 3.3 billion tons or rise to more than 6 billion tons burnt annually, primarily to produce electricity.
We have already reported about global air pollution that passes from West to East fouling what would otherwise be clean air. Global demand has local consequences.
Similarly, the United States is not the only place shifting from old mines to newer ones. Demand for coal is plundering European sites known for archeology and history, according to an article in Bloomberg Sustainability. The story reports on how demand for coal is resulting in the destruction of Medieval sites from Germany to Poland (where 90 percent of electricity is generated by coal) to the Czech Republic. The mines are a source for lignite, a brown coal that produces less energy and more pollution. The article reports threats to the Czech village of Horni Jiretin, “a 750-year-old village that survived everything from plagues in the middle ages to the last two world wars.” Not far from the mine is Jezeri, the baroque castle where Beethoven premiered his Eroica symphony.
In the United States, as in much of the world, heating and cooling are no longer the primary home energy uses. EIA reports that in 1993, 58 percent of U.S. home energy consumption was for heating and cooling. The most recent data shows that consumers are using less energy to heat and cool larger houses and that the amount used for heating and cooling is about 48 percent of energy consumption—still close to half. EIA attributes the change to more efficient equipment. better insulation, more efficient windows and population shifts to warmer climates (though one has to wonder whether the savings made from moving to warmer climates may be shifted as the global climate changes).
Consumers are dedicated to appliances and gadgets; power used for appliances and electronics is on the rise. EIA reports that “non-weather related energy use for appliances, electronics, water heating and lighting now accounts for 52 percent of total consumption.”
For residential natural-gas customers, space heating accounted for 63 percent of natural gas use with 37 percent used for water heating, cooking and operating appliances such as dryers.