Of the three fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas), coal is the dirtiest but most commonly used for heating and electricity generation. At present, coal remains a top source of energy in the major coal producing countries of the world such as China, USA, India, Australia and South Africa.
In the United States, due to the recent boom in production using the controversial “fracking” technology, natural gas has almost caught up with coal in its use for electricity generation. The following shows the significant changes (Sierra magazine, Sept/Oct 2014):
Between 2005 and 2012,
Coal dropped from 2000 to 1500 (in terawatts-hours)
Natural gas rose from 800 to 1250
Nuclear remained unchanged at 800
Hydro rose from 250 to 800
Wind, a new source, rose from insignificant to 200.
From the above, the decline of coal is picked up by natural gas, hydro and wind.
According to the experts, coal is an old industry that lacks new technology to make it more efficient and less dirty. Better-quality coal still contains high sulfur and ash contents that contribute heavily to pollution. Sequestration of carbon dioxide and other undesirable gases for coal burning is being explored but will require a lot of investments.
Facing technological and environmental challenges, the coal industry has been subject to price pressures in the stock market. Its market vector index has fallen from a high of $52 in 2011 to the present $18.
Due to reduced production, the employment level in the coal industry has fallen continuously from a high of 270,000 in 1978 to 80,000 in 2012.