Ohio’s energy sources: Coal mining

Part one in a series about how Ohio sources its energy for electricity.

The United States as a whole generates energy from: coal (33%), natural gas (33%), nuclear (20%), hydropower (6%), other renewables (7%), solar (0.6%), wind (4.7%), and petroleum (1%). Ohio generates energy from four main sources: coal (59%), natural gas (23%), petroleum (1%), and nuclear (14%).

For this column, I’m going to start with coal mining, as the majority of energy in Ohio comes from this source. Coal is a nonrenewable fossil fuel, and it is created from the remains of plants that lived and died about 100 to 400 million years ago. Coal is burned in order to produce heat. The heat converts water into high-pressure steam, which then turns the blades of a turbine that is connected to a generator. The generator spins and converts mechanical energy into electricity. It is estimated that the United States has enough coal reserves to last 285 years.

Since 1800, 3.7 billion tons of coal have been mined in Ohio. Of this, 2.3 billion tons have come from underground mines and 1.4 billion tons have come from surface mines. Most of the mines are in the eastern and southern parts of the state.  The closest counties to Cuyahoga where coal is mined are Stark, Mahoning, Tuscarawas, Carroll and Columbiana. In 1918, more than 50,000 individuals worked in Ohio’s coal industry. Today, Ohio’s coal industry currently employs up to 3,000 individuals. This major decline is due to both decreased production as well as technological advances that have allowed productivity rates per miner to greatly increase.

After coal is mined, it is cleaned to remove dirt, rock, ash, sulfur and other contaminants. It is then transported, usually by train, to market. Energy companies then purchase the coal they need, and use it in their power plants. The closest coal-burning power plant to Westlake and Bay Village is the Avon Lake power plant.

Coal burning plants across the United States account for approximately 33% of carbon dioxide (CO2), 40% of mercury, 25% of nitrogen oxide, and 67% of sulfur dioxide pollution in the U.S. Carbon dioxide is a major contributor to global warming. Mercury is highly toxic if inhaled or ingested. Sulfur dioxide exposure has been linked to heart disease and asthma, and nitrogen oxides have been found to cause lung tissue damage. Aside from the above pollutants, other hazardous byproducts also result from coal burning, including arsenic, chromium, cobalt, lead, manganese, zinc, radionuclides and particulate matter. A 2011 report released by the American Lung Association stated that particle pollution from power plants is estimated to kill approximately 13,000 people a year. 

Mercury pollution is especially concerning, as it has been found to poison fish in waters miles away from the source. Additionally, mercury exposure can harm developing brains of children, causing reduced intelligence. Coal burning plants are the single largest contributor to mercury pollution in the United States.

According to PSE Healthy Energy, a non-profit and policy think tank that supplies evidence-based, scientific information and resources, the Avon Lake power plant is Ohio’s dirtiest and deadliest. The plant has the second highest total emissions of sulfur dioxide in the country. Lorain County has one of the highest asthma prevalence rates in the state. Additionally, prior to 2016, the plant was not in compliance with the Clean Air Act requirements for at least three years. In September 2016, the Ohio EPA issued a letter finding that the Avon Lake plant had complied with emissions standards for all pollutants. 

Worldwide, it is estimated that the average daily consumption of coal per person is 6.4 pounds. In the United States alone, the average daily consumption is 18 pounds per person. In 2012, the world emitted a record 34.5 billion metric tons of CO2 from fossil fuels. Of total carbon dioxide emissions by the burning of fossil fuels, 44% comes from burning coal. 

The coal industry is constantly working on trying to make coal burning less impactful to the environment and health to humans. There are several different methods available, however the mining and burning of coal is still not clean, but has the potential to be much cleaner. One method to reduce harm to the environment is for coal-burning power plants to capture carbon dioxide emissions, and pipe them underground. Doing this could reduce global emissions by 80% in the next 30 to 40 years.

However, without government regulations that require CO2 capture or directly regulate emissions, the technology will most likely not spread. Nevertheless, reducing CO2 emissions is imperative for the health of the planet. Last year, 2016, was the hottest year on record. The last three years have all broken the records, each one hotter than the year before. Many experts believe that the increasing temperature will not only pose a threat to the earth, but to human civilization.

So what’s the good news, you might ask? You can play a role in reducing energy needs. Since so much of our energy here in Ohio comes from coal, I suggest using as little electricity as possible. You can do this by purchasing Energy Star appliances, replacing incandescent light bulbs with CFL or LED, unplugging electronics when not in use, reducing hot water usage, and turning off lights you are not using in your home. Lowering your thermostat by two degrees in the winter can save you up to 5% on your heating bill.

Next issue, I’m going to discuss natural gas as an energy source in Ohio. 

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Volume 9, Issue 2, Posted 9:39 AM, 01.24.2017