Old King Coal

We don’t think much about coal. Maybe you’ll hear about a mining accident, or you’ll see a strip mine from the road or the window seat of an airplane. Maybe you’ll visit a historical building in the US and you’ll see the remnants of a time when people lived with coal as part of their everyday life – had it delivered, stored it somewhere, and shoveled it into furnaces and stoves.

So for many of us, coal is lurking somewhere in the background, or may be even relegated to a thing of the past. But I’m using coal power right now, and there’s a better than 90% chance that, as you read this, you are too. That’s because coal is still the staple of electricity generation for much of the world, and you’re going to start hearing more and more about it.

Some factoids:

  • In the US, coal generates about 49% of our electricity
  • The cost of coal is 1/4 of oil or gas per BTU generated by burning it
  • We’ve got coal to burn, as they say, enough to last over 250 years based on projections and the stuff we know about right now
  • Electricity production from coal is still a dirty task, generating twice as much CO2 as gas and 50% more than oil per unit of energy produced
  • China is adding coal capacity like crazy, adding more in 2005 than the rest of the world combined
  • Worldwide electricity usage is projected to double in the next 25, meaning that unless other sources come on line quickly, we’ll be more reliant on coal than ever

There’s some very interesting stuff in the works to make coal burn cleaner, which is seeming like it may be critical for us as a capability. The question will be how much we’re willing to pay extra for “clean coal” electricity than the current stuff we get. For those of us involved in data centers, that may be an important question, indeed.