Coal is used to produce electricity and steel, but it also releases more carbon emissions than any other fossil fuel. One of the crucial factors in determining whether we can avoid catastrophic climate change is how quickly we can curtail our carbon emissions from coal.


By the Numbers

930 billion tonnes

Remaining global coal reserves


Coal-fired power plants built in China every week


Energy efficiency of most coal thermal plants today

63 million tonnes

Of coal mined in Western Canada in 2009


Increased chance of developing lung disease mong those living near coal mines

1,150 g/kWh

Carbon dioxide released per kWh of electricity from coal

Last Updated: May 2012

Andrew Farris

We all owe a debt to coal. Western industrial civilization was forged with coal, the most abundant, accessible and easy to handle of the fossil fuels. Unlocking coal's power allowed mankind to harness previously undreamt of quantities of energy, illuminating the world, animating machines and moving people faster than ever before.

Most people in the Western world continue to think of coal as an energy source from a bygone era but this is far from the case. While it is true that "king coal" has lost its spot as the most important energy source in the world, to oil and potentially later this century to gas, it is still an important contributor to most industrialized economies. Coal powers over half of America's electrical grid, and is important for power in every province except British Columbia and Quebec. Coking coal is used in making steel and cement, which also helps fuel demand. British Columbia mines millions of tons of coal, both for coking and power generation, and exports it around the world.

Just as the Western world first industrialized on the backs of coal miners in the 19th Century, the developing world is doing the same today. Global coal demand is expected to rise 56% by 2030, the entire increase coming from emerging economies, spearheaded by China. The relative abundance of coal and the relatively simple technology of mining it and burning it (as opposed to say operating a nuclear power plant) makes coal the obvious choice for power in many countries.

'Coal in truth stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material energy of the country — the universal aid — the factor in everything we do. With coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times.'

-Stanley Jevon, 1896

This poses civilization with a virtually insoluble dilemma. Coal power produces myriad environmental problems, from watersheds destroyed by mining, to millions of tons of fly ash and toxic effluents released into the air through its combustion. Most ominously, coal power produces more carbon emissions than any other form of power generation. China, for instance, is currently constructing an average of two coal-fired power plants a week, and as a result is projected to produce as many carbon emissions by 2030 as the entire world did in 2008.

Many experts hold out hope that carbon capture and sequestration technology, literally pumping the carbon from coal plants underground, can avert climate disaster. Alarmingly, as of this writing, the development and deployment of this technology is proceeding at a glacial pace.

  1. World Energy Outlook 2009. International Energy Agency, 2009. p. 10.

How Coal Works

Coal is an ignitable organic rock that forms over hundreds of millions of years from the compression of vegetation from ancient forests, a process that continues to this day. The carbon in the organic remains is concentrated and progresses t1``hrough five stages of increased carbonization. As a general rule, the older the coal the higher the degree of carbonization.

Peat, the transient phase between decayed vegetation and coal, dug out of a bog in the United Kingdom.

Peat: The first stage of carbonization is peat, which is not technically coal. Peat has yet to be subjected to the extreme compression that leads to fossilization and so most of the water has yet to be squeezed out. It can be burned for fuel—and in many less developed parts of the world it is—but it does not produce much energy.

Lignite: The second stage of carbonization is lignite, the lowest rank of coal and sometimes referred to as "brown coal". The carbon content in lignite is only around 25-35%; the rest is water. As such it still produces limited amounts of energy (3,500-4,600 kcal/kg) but since it comprises about a quarter of all the coal in the world, it is widely used for electricity generation in poorer countries.

Sub-bituminous Coal: Sub-bituminous coals, or "soft coals", fall in the middle, with a 35-50% carbon content and an energy content of 4,600 to 6,000 kcal/kg. Sub-bituminous coal is used throughout the world, primarily in thermal power stations but also for cement making and other industries.

Bituminous Coal: Bituminous grade coal, is the primary coal used in electric generation (steam coal) and in metallurgy(coking coal). About half of all the coal burned in the world is this grade. It ranges from 50-86% carbon content and any energy content above 6,400 kcal/kg.

Anthracite: The fifth and final degree of carbonization leads to anthracite, "hard coal". With any carbon content greater than 86%, anthracite is the least common and therefore the most expensive grade of coal. Its high cost and the ventilation requirements make it impractical for use in power-plants. On the other hand, its low soot and high smoke content makes it useful for burning in residential heating.


Coal occurs in underground or surface seams that can be extracted, either through underground mines or surface mining. Underground mining is an umbrella term for a number of techniques that involve tunneling into the Earth. Unlike metal ores, great quantities of coal must be mined in order to be economical, and this is more difficult in an underground mine, making these mines less popular today in developed economies. On the other hand much less energy is required to operate an underground mine. They are also far more dangerous for the workers inside. Before huge earth-movers became available and high safety standards became the norm, this form of mining was much more popular, and evocative of the early phases of the West's Industrial Revolution. For the same reasons it is still prevalent in many developing countries today, such as China and India.

In surface mining, the rocks overlying a coal seam are removed entirely and the coal is gouged out of the earth by colossal bucket-wheels excavators. To give an idea of the scale of these machines, Germany's Bagger 288 excavator is the largest land vehicle in the world. It can fully load 2,400 train wagons with coal in a single day.

bagger 288
The German coal bucket-wheel excavator Bagger 288, the largest land machine in the world.

There are a variety of surface mining techniques, including strip mining, open-pit mining and mountain-top removal mining. While surface mining is far more efficient at removing vast quantities of coal quickly, and involves fewer risks to the miners, it is also more environmentally damaging. Mountain-top removal mining, common in the American Appalachians, is particularly controversial as it can--and often does--permanently destroy local ecosystems and irreparably alters regional topography.

Coal Train
A train moving a load of coal.


Once the coal is extracted it is moved to the thermal power plants and industrial centres where it is used. It is difficult to imagine the immense quantities of coal involved, and it is equally difficult to conceive of the enormous road, rail, and naval infrastructure that exists around the world to get the rock from mine to market. For instance, the 1,500MW Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee consumes around 14,000 tons of coal a day, enough to fill up 140 railcars. When you consider that there are 1,395 coal-fueled generating units in the United States spanning 48 states, it follows that the size of this coal infrastructure must be immense indeed.

How Coal is Used

Coal has a number of uses, the most common being electricity generation. Coal used for this purpose is known as steam coal. Once it arrives at an electric power-plant the coal is pulverized into a talcum-like powder, and then blown into a boiler where it ignites. The resulting heat turns a pool of water into steam, which then drives an electricity-generating turbine. The technology is simple, which helps explain coal's dominance at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and its popularity in the developing world today.

The boilers in most coal plants operate at less than 550˚C and convert only about 33-35% of the total energy in the coal into electricity. These are known as subcritical plants. In a drive to increase efficiency, new metals are being used to make boilers and turbines that can withstand intense heat for prolonged periods. These new plants, known as supercritical, burn coal at 550˚C to 590˚C and have an efficiency of 40%. Some industry experts expect that ultra-supercritical plants, which work at temperatures of 760˚C and have an efficiency of 47%, to be the norm by 2020. Improvements in efficiency will help global coal reserves last longer and mean less carbon is released into the atmosphere for the same energy output.

Coal also plays a role in about 70% of the world's steel production, by using coking coal for smelting in blast furnaces. In this process, high grade coal is cooked in an oven to burn off impurities until it is merely a lump of pure carbon. Iron is then alloyed with the carbon, or coke, to make steel. The remaining 30% of steel is produced with electric arc furnaces that do not require coal and emit far less carbon.

Coal fuels a number of other industrial processes. Making cement, for instance, is a very energy-intensive activity and many countries rely upon coal to provide this energy. China relies almost exclusively on coal to fuel its cement production, which amounted to almost half of the entire world's 2.7 billion tons of consumption in 2007. In some cases coal effluents such as fly ash are used in the cement itself.

  1. Classification of Coal, The Engineering Toolbox, accessed May 6, 2012,
  2. Malone, Robert. The World's Biggest Land Vehicle,, March 12, 2007, accessed May 6, 2012.
  3. Mid-Atlantic Mountaintop Mining, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, last modified September 11, 2011, accessed May 6, 2012.
  4. Fossil Power, Tennessee Valley Authority Kids, accessed May 6, 2012.
  5. U.S. Energy Information Administration. Coal Factsheet. 2010.
  6. Krupp, F & Horn, M. Earth: The Sequel, (London: Norton Books, 2009), 168.
  7. Coal & Steel, World Coal Association, 2012, accessed May 6, 2012.
  8. Coal & Cement, World Coal Association, 2012, accessed May 6, 2012.

Geography of Coal

Most of the world's coal began to form in the Carboniferous Period, when much of the world's continental plates were submerged in shallow vegetated seas 300-360 million years ago. Though these Carboniferous deposits are the richest and most common, almost every geological era has left behind coal beds and today deposits are found all over the world.

A graphic showing the world's supplies of fossil fuels. Unlike oil, which is concentrated in the Middle East, the world's major economies have abundant supplies of coal.

Since there are few geographic restrictions on where a thermal coal plant can be built, it is generally the case that the plants are built near the coal. This is part of the reason that, in sharp contrast with oil, up to 90% of the coal mined in the world is used in the country it is produced. It is also perhaps fortuitous that the largest economies in the world also possess some of the largest coal reserves.

Coal Output in 2005 shown as a percentage of the top producer. The major production centres roughly correspond to the world's major economies: Eastern North America, Central Europe, and China. Significantly, the secondary centres are in India, Indonesia, South Africa and Australia, all rapidly growing economies.
  1. Krupp, Fred. 'Earth: The Sequel.' (New York: Environmental Defense Fund, 2008.), p. 167.

Economics of Coal

Coal is cheap for four reasons. Firstly, as a solid it is the easiest fossil fuel to utilize. It can be dug out of the ground in thick veins, shoveled into railway cars and then deposited in a boiler. The entire process can be done with relatively simple technology and this is largely why coal was the first fossil fuel to be widely used during industrialization. Liquid oil has to be contained in a vessel of some kind, while energy suppliers have only relatively recently figured out ways to harness natural gas.

Secondly, coal can also usually be found near the industrial regions where it is needed. Coal reserves in Appalachia and Inner Mongolia are huge factors in the economic miracles in the United States and China, while German and British coal reserves (though now mostly exhausted) helped make those countries superpowers a century ago. Since such massive quantities of coal are required to get a good energy return, ease of access is a blessing for these energy-intensive economies.

Third, because there is so much coal being mined in so many places, the market is less prone to major fluctuations in price when there is a supply disruption. Economists and security experts are constantly wringing their hands over what a major hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico or a terror attack on a Saudi Arabian oil terminal would do to oil prices, and the havoc that could cause the entire global economy. Conversely, coal supplies are less tight, the supply network is less vulnerable to major disruption from a single event, and when there is an accident—such as a major mine collapse in China's Shaanxi province—the effect is usually localized to the country where it happened.

Finally, coal power is cheap because, depending on the region, the external costs of coal use have not been factored into the final price of electricity. This means that power companies do not charge for the adverse environmental effects of coal power at every stage of production. These include the environmental damage wrought by mining, the negative health effects of toxic emissions from coal plants, and the release of green-house gas emissions into the atmosphere.

The final price of coal measured in the electricity it generates per kilowatt-hour, varies depending on where it is produced, and a number of studies have shown different results.

Studies tend to show that in many conditions coal power remains cheaper than either nuclear or natural gas, coal's two main rivals. This will likely remain the case until carbon taxes come into effect.

As you can see, in all but a single study, coal comes out cheaper than its two main competitors for the electricity market: nuclear power and natural gas.

A 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Energy compares estimates of how much electricity from a power plant built in 2016 will cost. The total levelized cost includes all the costs of the energy, from the cradle to the grave. The DoE also calculated in a 3% carbon tax for carbon-intensive forms of energy generation that don't include carbon capture and sequestration, such as conventional coal plants or coal-to-liquids.

This graph depicts what the total cost of electricity from each power source is expected to be in 2016 from a plant built that year by the U.S. Department of Energy. Conventional coal plants remain among the cheapest, save for the newer natural gas plants which have levels of efficiency that coal utility operators could only dream of. Still wind, geothermal and hydro are quickly becoming competitive.

Under these conditions, at $0.09 per kWh (divide the megawatt hours by 1000 to get the kilowatt-hours) conventional coal is now on par with onshore wind and hydroelectric power, as well as several different types of natural gas-fired plants. Advanced coal power plants, such as ultra-supercritical plant designs that are on the drawing board now, and coal plants with carbon capture and sequestration are closer to $0.10 and $0.13 respectively, which is much cheaper than solar thermal power, or offshore wind.

If the world is going to take any meaningful action on climate change, making it more expensive to build and operate coal power plants will be essential. Many countries are already implementing carbon taxes and many others are developing regulations that will force coal plants to rein in their carbon footprint. The addition of carbon capture and sequestration technology, which in the minds of most scientists is the only way to continue to use coal power in a sustainable way, will have a considerable impact upon the final price of coal generated electricity. Of course the technology has to be invented and deployed first, which may never actually happen.

  1. Banyan, Old King Coal, The Economist, February 25, 2012, accessed May 6, 2012.

Coal and the Environment

Environmental Effects of Mining

The mining of coal has far-reaching environmental and health effects. Surface mining, the most widely employed form of mining in developed countries, requires that all the vegetation and rock overlying a coal seam is removed. This destroys habitats and wrecks the natural waterways, which also increases the chance of flooding later on. The waste rock—from both surface and underground mines—can block up waterways and contain toxic heavy-metal runoff, such as mercury or cadmium, that is damaging to plant and animal life and can contaminate groundwater that nearby communities rely upon. Scientists have identified a link between those living near coal mining and higher rates of a variety of chronic illnesses. As one study conducted in West Virginia found, "residents of coal mining communities have a 70 percent increased risk for developing kidney disease; a 64 percent increased risk for developing chronic pulmonary disease like emphysema; and are 30 percent more likely to report hypertension."

Mountain-top removal mining in Appalachia. This mining technique is hugely controversial because of the dramatic impact it has upon the landscape.

Today in most developed countries, after an area's economically viable coal reserves have been tapped, the land is usually reclaimed. This means replacing the rocks to restore the region's original topography and replanting vegetation atop the former mine. The United States and Canada have passed Land Reclamation laws forcing mining companies to restore the land close to its original condition. When done correctly, land reclamation can be highly successful. The Mineral Information Institute logs many examples of reclamation operations across the United States where the land has been "returned to a condition matching or improving its original use."

There are regions where it is difficult or impossible to fully reclaim the land, such as the American Appalachians. Because of the steep, mountainous regions a mining technique known as mountain-top removal is employed that often irreparably alters a region's topography. Because of the difficulty and expense of reclaiming land in some areas, the land reclamation rate in most OECD countries is somewhere from 50% to 70%. Developing countries are far behind in this metric: land reclamation rates in China are only around 12%, though they have a larger portion of underground mines which do not require as extensive reclamation.

Toxic Emissions

Trees killed by acid rain. Coal is the number one cause of acid rain worldwide.

When coal is combusted it releases gases into the atmosphere, known as flue gases , as well as creating millions of tons of fly ash. The flue gases contain a number of toxic chemicals, the quantities depending on the grade of coal that is burned and the filters employed at the plant where it is burned. These include soot, nitrogen oxides, ozone and sulfur dioxides. When emitted soot contributes to smog, and nitrogen and sulfur dioxides cause acid rain. All of them contribute to serious lung complications such as asthma. A number of toxic heavy metals are released into the environment as well when coal is burned: arsenic, lead, selenium, mercury and cadmium, among others. Studies show that ingesting these pollutants, either through inhaling them or eating food or drinking water contaminated with them does have serious, measurable health consequences.

In many developed countries, government have implemented regulations that govern how many toxic effluents can be released into the atmosphere, such as the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, and the American Clean Skies Act. Many developed countries like China and India are also rapidly implementing regulations that will decrease toxic coal emissions. To achieve these decreases a number of clean coal technologies are employed:

Cleaning the coal begins before it is burned with coal washing: a process that removes metal impurities from the coal which, if combusted, would be highly toxic. This is done by putting the pulverized coal in a fluid that is dense enough for the coal to float on, while metals sink to the bottom.

Then the pulverized coal is burned. In the combustion chamber devices called Low NOx burners work to keep a minimum of oxygen available, reducing the formation of acid-rain causing nitrogen oxide by 40 to 60%.

Next, as the gas leaves the combustion chamber they are sprayed with a mixture of limestone and water. The sulphur dioxide in the flue gases react with the limestone and form gypsum, which can be recycled and reused in the construction industry. These Wet Scrubbers are effective at preventing almost 99% of coal's sulphur dioxide emissions.

Finally the particulates are filtered to prevent them from entering the atmosphere. There are a number of different systems for doing this but the most common are electrostatic precipitators. They create an electromagnetic field that negatively charges the particles in flue gases and forces them onto a positively-charged plate where they can be removed. This system removes around 99% of all the soot particles. The primary gas that remains to be emitted is carbon dioxide, which was not seen as a dangerous pollutant until much more recently.

The implementation of these emissions-cleaning technologies since the 1970s has had a marked effect upon the environmental impact of coal power, particularly in OECD countries. In the United States, about 66% of all sulphur dioxides and 40% of nitrogen oxides released into the atmosphere originate from electricity generation plants, primarily coal burning ones. After many years of lobbying, the U.S. implemented a cap-and-trade program on these emissions in 1990. Since then SO2 emissions have declined by half to 8.95 million tons a year. Acid rain events have declined by two thirds in the same period. This happened despite a huge expansion of American coal-generated energy capacity. This cap and trade program has been pointed to as a potential example of what a successful carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program could look like.

It should be noted that the term "clean-coal technology" is often thought to refer to coal technologies that prevent coal from releasing climate-change causing carbon dioxide emissions. This is not the case, and instead the term just refers to the particulates and impurities cleaned by the technologies just described. Technologies that prevent the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere are usually referred to as Carbon Capture and Sequestration and these are still only in the experimental phase.

Coal Ash

Asides from the millions of tons of flue gases released during coal combustion, the solid remains of ash create a considerable waste problem. There are two kinds of ash, the fly ash which rises with the flue gases and is then captured by electrostatic precipitators, and the bottom ash which is heavy enough to remain inside the boiler. Collected together, the quantities of the ash are truly colossal: coal plants in the United States create around 130 million tons of coal ash a year. Typically this ash is disposed of at the plant by being dumped in nearby surface impoundments and landfills, although a considerable portion, perhaps as much as a third, is recycled for use as fill in concrete or wallboards.

Coal plants in the United States create around 130 million tons of coal ash a year. Typically this ash is disposed of at the plant by being dumped in nearby surface impoundments and landfills.

An American industry study found that 80% of the surface impoundments are unlined, as are 40% of the landfills. This means that the many toxic heavy-metals in coal ash have the potential to seep into groundwater with the attendant negative health effects for humans and wildlife.  In rare instances, these coal ash impoundments can be breached and the sludge-like slurry can swamp entire communities. This is what happened in Kingston, Tennessee, in December 2008. A dyke ruptured and released over a billion gallons of ash slurry into the adjacent Emory River, flooding the outskirts of Kingston. The spill had the effect of bringing the regulation of coal ash into the public debate and the EPA has begun moving to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste. This is a move that is currently vehemently contested by the coal utilities industry.

An aerial photograph taken of the Kingston, Tennessee, ash spill on December 23, 2008. The spill killed a huge number of fish and led to elevated levels of dangerous metals in the Emory River.

While one might expect a nuclear power plant to be the power source that emits the most radiation, this is not the case. Scientific American compiled a number of studies that have

called these stereotypes into question. Among the surprising conclusions: the waste produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than that generated by their nuclear counterparts. In fact, the fly ash emitted by a power plant—a by-product from burning coal for electricity—carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.

This is because coal contains trace amounts of the radioactive isotopes uranium and thorium. When coal is burned these elements can be as high as ten times higher than their normal levels and released into the environment, usually in the so-called "stack shadow", a 0.8 to 1.6 kilometre radius around the plant. Still, even heightened exposure in these areas poses a low level health risk. A person living in the stack shadow has an annual radiation intake 0.3% above the background radiation.

Coal and Climate Change

When it comes to coal, climate change is the elephant in the room that will have to be addressed in the years ahead. The burning of coal releases more carbon than any other type of fuel used by man, and accounts for around 20% of all green-house gas emissions, and that number is expected to rise quickly. A single 500-megawatt coal power plant emits as much as three million tons of carbon dioxide a year. Hopes are high for a variety of technologies that can either capture carbon dioxide and stash it back underground, or simply turn the coal straight into gas so that it is not burned at all. Progress has been slow, however, and there remains much work to be done. Persistent questions remain: Can coal power ever be carbon-free? Will capturing carbon ever be cheap enough to be economically viable? We will discuss these questions and the problem of coal and climate change in a supplementary article that will be added in the near future.

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  11. CBS News. Coal Ash: 130 Million Tons of Waste. August 15, 2010. Accessed May 25, 2012.
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  13. Coal and Climate Change Facts, Pew Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions, accessed May 6, 2012.

Politics of Coal

Coal presents humanity with one of its most difficult dilemmas. On the one hand it is difficult to imagine a cheaper and simpler way to generate energy than burning what is essentially flammable dirt. On the other it is unequalled in its environmental toll: Not only does coal release millions of tons of hazardous effluents into the atmosphere, it has the largest carbon footprint of all the fossil fuels. As the implications of global warming come into sharper focus every day, it is becoming increasingly clear that our continued addiction to coal threatens to derail civilization.

A graph showing the dramatic rise in coal consumption expected in the years ahead. The light red line is coal use by developing countries.

Coal use is growing faster than any other fossil fuel. As the United States Energy Information Administration has forecast:

Worldwide coal consumption is expected to rise by 56 percent from 6.4 billion tons in 2007 to almost 10 billion tons in 2035. Coal's share of world energy consumption has been at 27 percent in 2007 and will increase to 28 percent in 2035. The main reason for the increase of only one percent is the growing use of renewable energy sources. China is believed to account for 75 percent of growth in global coal production from 2007 to 2035, Australia and New Zealand are expected to cover 10 percent together.

Some jurisdictions, such as Ontario, are actively phasing out coal power, while others such as the E.U. and the United States, are banking heavily upon future technological solutions like that will make burning coal carbon-neutral. The future politics of coal will then depend heavily upon the development and deployment of Carbon Capture and Sequestration technology in the years ahead.

  1. International Energy Outlook 2011, U.S. EIA, September 19, 2011, accessed May 6, 2012.

Coal Around the World

Humans have been burning coal for heat since Classical Antiquity, but it was not until the middle of the 18th Century that coal really came into its own. Then the invention of the coal--powered steam engine kickstarted the Industrial Revolution. Coal power was a key contributor to the sustained increases in population and incomes that were the hallmarks of industrialization. Britain's coal-powered navies propelled that country to superpower status, while coal-powered foundries armed Germany in the run-up to the World Wars. One cannot overstate the importance of coal in shaping the past two centuries. In 1865 the British economist Stanley Jevons wrote:

Coal in truth stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material energy of the country — the universal aid — the factor in everything we do. With coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times. With such facts familiarly before us, it can be no matter of surprise that year by year we make larger draughts upon a material of such myriad qualities — of such miraculous powers."

Until the 1960s coal remained the dominant form of energy used in the world, until it was supplanted by oil, which was more convenient for transportation and provided higher energy intensity. Because of an increasingly unfashionable reputation in the West, coal continued to lose its share of the total world market to the other fossil fuels down to the year 2000.

But in the past decade a remarkable thing has happened: coal's share of the world's energy pie has begun to expand again, growing faster than any other fuel. This trend has been propelled by soaring demand from economies like India, South Korea, and South Africa. But head and shoulders above them all is China. The People's Republic, who ten years ago roughly tied for first place with the United States in coal production, has tripled their coal use in the past ten years alone and now consumes almost half of all the coal used in the world.

And it should be noted that coal use never seriously diminished in the West. It has just been taking a progressively smaller part of an ever-increasing pie. Coal still accounts for slightly under half of U.S. electricity generation and plays a central role in the economies of the Appalachian States. Globally coal accounts for 40% of all electricity generation.

Coal plants, railways and mines are opening up all over the world (particularly in China) and they are designed to be operational for at least 30 years. If for no other reason, because of these massive ongoing investments, we should be under no illusions that coal is here to stay.

There is far more coal left in the Earth to be combusted than there is natural gas (though new kinds of unconventional gas are changing this) or oil—and investors realize this. The past decade has seen a massive expansion of coal-based infrastructure: coal plants, railways and mines are opening up all over the world and they are designed to be operational for at least 30 years. Because of these massive ongoing investments, if for no other reason, we should be under no illusions: coal is here to stay.

Up to this point coal's relative abundance, along with the large volumes needed to generate electricity, have not made it economical to trade internationally. This is changing. China's insatiable demand is leading that country to run down her deposits at an alarming pace, and in response the government is considering putting a cap on domestic production. It has no intention to put a cap on domestic demand, meaning the Chinese are increasingly looking to fill the supply gap with imported coal. British Columbia, Australia and Indonesia already export large amounts of coal to East and South Asian countries, and this trade will likely grow in the years ahead.

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Coal in Canada

For its size, Canada has comparatively small reserves of coal: about 6.5 billion tons, or 0.8% of the world's total; tiny Serbia's reserves are double that. Nevertheless the quality of Canada's coal reserves is high, and in Western Canada there are 22 coal mines in operation. In 2009 they extracted 63 million tons of coal, which may sound like a lot, but once again is a mere .018% of what was mined in China.

Coal being prepared for shipping by rail at the Line Creek mine in southeast British Columbia.

60% of the coal mined in Canada is steam coal, and most of it is burned for electricity domestically. The remainder is coking coal, almost all of which is exported to Japan or South Korea. Some provinces rely more heavily upon coal than others, depending on their geography. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia, for instance, who have large coal deposits, generate most of their electricity from coal. B.C. and Quebec, on the other hand, have no coal power plants sat all ince they have enough rivers and mountains to generate almost all of their power from hydroelectric dams. New Brunswick and Manitoba also get small portions of their electricity from coal. Despite the environmental effects, the abundance of coal in Western Canada means the Prairie Provinces will likely depend upon coal for most of their electricity needs for the foreseeable future.

Ontario, because of its huge power needs, has a diverse electricity generation portfolio and gets about 15% of its electricity from coal. Indeed, the Nanticoke coal plant in Southern Ontario is the largest coal thermal plant in North America. Since Ontario has no coal deposits of its own, it must import coal from America's Appalachian coal-heartland next door. Ontario Power Generation has come under intense scrutiny from environmentalists for its reliance on coal and intends to phase out coal-burning at all four of its thermal plants by 2014. They will be retrofitted to run on cleaner burning natural gas or biomass. As Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty said in 2007, "By 2030 there will be about 1,000 more new coal-fired generating stations built on this planet. There is only one place in the world that is phasing out coal-fired generation and we're doing that right here in Ontario."

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  4. Ontario Liberals promise to close coal plants by 2014, CTV News, June 18, 2007, accessed May 6, 2012.


To ensure continuity of material, all of the external web pages referenced here were cached in May 2012.

Readers are recommended to explore the current links for any changes.

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When no treaty was signed between the government, and no war was fought over the land, first nations groups in Canada are entitled to the land on which they have historically lived and still inhabit.
In solar thermal energy collectors, the Absorber Area refers to the area absorbing the radiation
A technique where acidic solutions are pumped into a well, melting away debris about the bottom of the well and allowing the gas to flow more freely.
An electrical current that reverses its direction at regularly recurring intervals. Abbreviated to AC.
A series of processes in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen. Used for industrial and/or domestic purposes to manage waste and/or release energy.
A device used for measuring wind speed.
The average speed (and direction) of the wind over the course of a year.
Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC): A 21-nation group of Pacific-Rim nations that seeks to promote free trade, raise living standards, education levels and sustainable economic policies. Canada is a member.
The artificially increased discharge of water during the operation of hydroelectric turbines during periods of peak demand.
Small particles released into the atmosphere as part of the flue gases from a coal plant. Fly ash is dangerous for human health but most power plants use electrostatic precipitators to capture it before release.
The waters off the Atlantic provinces that has been producing oil and gas since the 1990s, and continues to have considerable untapped oil and gas potential. The region has similar geology to the oil-rich North Sea.
'The ionizing radiation which we are all inescapably exposed to every day. It comes from radon gas in the ground, the sun, distant supernovas, and even elements inside our own bodies. The average exposure is around 361 mrem per year for a person in Washington state (it varies by region).
Base-load power is that provided continuously, virtually year-round to satisfy a regions minimum electricity needs. Hydro and nuclear power are well-suited for base-load grid needs.
A renewable fuel in which soy or canola oil is refined through a special process and blended with standard diesel oil. Biodiesel does not contain ethanol, but research is underway to develop diesel blends with ethanol.
Renewable energy made available from materials derived from biological sources.
Natural gas, or methane, that is created by microbes consuming organic matter. Usually found near the Earths surface and is usually immediately released into the atmosphere.
Biological material from living, or recently living organisms such as trees, grasses, and agricultural crops. As an energy source, biomass can either be used directly, or converted into other energy products such as biofuel.
A facility that integrates biomass conversion processes and equipment to produce fuels, power, and chemicals from biomass. The biorefinery concept is analogous to petroleum refineries, which produce multiple fuels and products from petroleum.
Bitumen is "petroleum that exists in the semi-solid or solid phase in natural deposits. Bitumen is a thick, sticky form of crude oil, so heavy and viscous (thick) that it will not flow unless heated or diluted with lighter hydrocarbons. At room temperature, it is much like cold molasses."
Bottom Ash: Bottom ash are small particles that result from coal combustion, but unlike fly ash they are too heavy to be released into the atmosphere and must be stored.
Canadian Environmental Protection Act: Passed in 1999, CEPA is "An Act respecting pollution prevention and the protection of the environment and human health in order to contribute to sustainable development."
Cap and Trade: A system where the government sets a limit on how much of a pollutant may be emitted. It then sells the rights to emit that pollutant to companies, known as carbon credits, and allows them to trade the credits with other companies. The EU has implemented a cap and trade program for carbon dioxide.
Carbon Footprint: A calculation based on the set of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by an organization, event, product, or person.
Carbon Sink: A carbon sink is a natural or artificial reservoir that accumulates and stores carbon-containing chemical compounds for an indefinite period.
Carbon Monoxide: A deadly gas produced from the tailpipe of cars that burn gasoline.
Capacity Factor: The ratio of the actual output of a power plant over a period of time and its potential to output if it had operated at full nameplate capacity the entire time.
Cellulose: An organic compound consisting of several hundred to over ten thousand linked glucose units. Cellulose comprises the structural component of the cell wall in plants, many green algae. It is the most common organic compound on Earth comprising about 33% of plant matter.
Cellulosic Biomass: Fuel produced from wood, grasses, or the non-edible parts of plants that is mainly comprised of cellulose.
Cellulosic Feedstock: The inedible cellulose which comprises most plants and trees. Yields are much higher as any part of the plant can be used and because they do not compete with food, therefore, cellulosic feedstock is an ideal candidate for large scale sustainable biofuel production.
Cetane Rating: Also known as cetane number (CN), this is a measurement of the combustion quality of diesel fuel during compression ignition. It is a significant expression of diesel fuel quality.
Clean Power Call: A request sent out by B.C. Hydro to private power utilities for new electricity-generating projects totalling 5,000 GWh/year. B.C. Hydro will help fund the successful projects and then buy power from them once completed.
How efficiently a turbine converts the energy in wind into electricity. Just divide the electrical power output by the wind energy input.
Using the energy left over from one primary energy conversion to fuel another. The most prominent example of this are natural gas co-generation plants which first feed fuel into a gas turbine. The residual heat from that reaction then heats water to spin a steam turbine.
Collector Area: In solar thermal energy collectors, the Collector Area refers to the area that intercepts the solar radiation.
A mixture of hydrocarbons present in natural gas. When gas is lowered below the hydrocarbon dew point, a condensate, that is, a liquid, forms. These can be used for combustion just like oil and gas. These are also known as natural gas liquids.
Generation of electricity using fossil fuels.
Gas reserves that form beneath porous layers of sandstone. Until recently this has been the only kind of gas commercially extracted.
When bituminous coal is baked at high temperatures it fuses together ash and carbon, creating coke. Coke can then be used to reduce the oxygen content of iron, strengthening it and creating steel.
A force generated by to the earths rotation which deflects a body of fluid or gas moving relative to the earths surface to the right in the northern hemisphere and to the left in the southern hemisphere. It is at its maximum at the poles and zero at the equator.
Decentralized Electricity Generation: Decentralizated electricity generation is a concept used to describe a large number of dispersed energy generators, often closely integrated with the people that use the electricity. Wind turbines and solar panels are good examples: they can be put within communities, be owned by members of the community and generate electricity for it. Alternatively centralized energy generation, far more common in North America, is where a small number of large plants owned by utility companies (hydro-electric, nuclear or fossil fuel) generate large quantities of electricity.
The portion of the oil business that involves refining the crude oil, bringing it to market and selling it. Gasoline service stations are the most lucrative part of downstream operations.
Effluents: Gases or liquids released by a human-made structure, in this case flue gases from a coal-fired power plant.
Electrolyte: Usually a solution of acids, bases, or salts, electrolytes are substances with free ions which make them effective electrical conductors.
Electrolysis: A simple technique for splitting water atoms to obtain hydrogen, driven by an electrical current.
Requirements that set specific limits to the amount of pollutants that can be released into the environment by automobiles and other powered vehicles, as well as emissions generated by industry, power plants, and small equipment.
Transforming one form of energy into another. Most energy conversions that run our economy are conversions from a primary source to electricity (wind or nuclear) or movement (oil).
Energy Currency: Energy that is usable for practical purposes. These include electricity and petroleum which power appliances and vehicles.
A measurement of the amount of energy stored in a given volume.
Energy Return On Investment (EROI): This is the ratio of usable energy obtained over the amount of energy required to get it. The oil sands has a low EROI because instead of being sucked out of the ground in liquid form the oil must be painstakingly mined and heavily refined, a process that requires large quantities of energy itself.
An energy source is the means by which energy is generated. The energy profiles each deal with a different source of energy, and most are simply means to attain the energy currency we all use: electricity.
Enhanced Geothermal System: A new technology, EGS does not require natural convective geothermal resources, but instead can draw power from the ground through extremely dry and impermeable rock.
The provincial Environmental Assessment Office is a politically neutral agency tasked with reviewing major construction projects in B.C. Their purview includes assessing the environmental, economic, social, heritage and health effects over the lifecycle of projects.
A blend of ethanol and diesel fuel. plus other additives, designed to reduce air pollution from heavy equipment, city buses and other vehicles that operate on diesel engines.
A policy device that encourages investment in renewable energies, usually by guaranteeing power producers that their energy will be bought.
In food processing, fermentation is the conversion of carbohydrates to alcohols and carbon dioxide or organic acids using yeasts, bacteria or a combination thereof, under anaerobic conditions. In simple terms, fermentation is the chemical conversion of sugars to ethanol.
A finite, or non-renewable resource, is one where a limited amount exists. Once the existing stocks of that resource are exhausted there will be no more, at least in any reasonable human time scale. Only so much fossil fuels and uranium exist on earth, making these finite, non-renewableresources. The wind, sun and tides are renewable resources since it is impossible to run out of them.
First Generation Renewable: Well established renewable technologies that emerged early on in the Industrial Revolution. These include hydropower, biomass combustion and early geothermal power.
Fission is a nuclear reaction where a heavy atom is hit by a neutron, causing it to split into lighter atoms, release more neutrons, and huge amounts of energy.
Flat-plate collectors are a type of non-concentrating solar energy collector, typically used when temperatures are below 200 degrees F. They are often used for heating buildings.
Flex-Fuel Vehicle: Also known as a dual-fuel vehicle, this is an alternative fuel vehicle with an internal combustion engine designed to run on more than one fuel, usually gasoline blended with either ethanol or methanol fuel.
Flue gases are the gases that are released into the atmosphere by a flue, or pipe, from the steam boiler.
Many biofuel feedstocks such as corn, sugarcane, and soybeans are also key sources of food for millions of people. Production of crops for bioenergy may displace other food-related crops, increasing the cost and decreasing the availability of food. The central question is one of ethics: Should we use our limited land resources to grow biofuels when the same land could be producing food for people?
Fracking: Hydraulic fracturing is the process of injecting high pressure fluids into deep, geologic formations, in order to fracture the rock and render it more permeable.
Fuel Crops: Crops grown specifically for their value as fuel to make biofuels or for their energy content.
Fumaroles: Openings in the Earths crust that emit steam and gases.
Gasohol: Otherwise known as fuel ethanol, gasohol has been distilled and dehydrated to create a high-octane, water free alcohol. All water must be removed because a water-alcohol mixture cannot dissolve in gasoline. Fuel ethanol is made unfit for drinking by adding a small amount of a noxious substance such as gasoline.
Geothermal Gradient: The rate at which temperature increases deeper into the earth, towards the earth's molten core.
Geothermal Task Force Team is a government program that aims to: develop policies, in collaboration with affected agencies, related to tenure issuance, examine the regulation of the use of geothermal resources not currently covered by legislation, build a royalty and resource rent model for geothermal resources, and develop a science based review of the known geothermal resources in the province.
Geyser: Springs characterized by intermittent discharge of water ejected turbulently and accompanied by steam.
Giromill Turbine: Uses lift forces generated by vertical aerofoils to convert wind energy into rotational mechanical energy. They are powered by two or three vertical aerofoils attached to a central mast by horizontal supports.
Glut: A situation where the market has been flooded with goods and there is more supply than there is demand causing the price of goods to drop.
Gravity Survey: A technique of measuring minute changes in the Earths gravity field. This allows geologists to map lighter and denser rocks underground.
Green Energy and Green Economy Act of 2009: Legislation by the province of B.C. to boost the investment in renewable energy projects and increase conservation, create green jobs and economic growth in Ontario. Part of Ontario's plan to become a leading green economy in North America.
Head: The term head refers to the change in elevation of the water.
Head Differential: The difference in pressure due to the difference in height of water level.
Heat Exchangers: These are used in High-Temperature and Low-Temperature applications to transfer heat from one medium to another. In Low-Temperature Geoexchange systems they are built into the heat pump.
Horizontal Axis Wind Turbine (HAWT): Horizontal Axis Wind Turbine. These are the most common types of wind turbines and look like aircraft propellers mounted atop towers.
Hydrocarbons: A compound of almost entirely hydrogen and carbon. This covers oil and natural gas. Coal, the third fossil fuel, contains so many impurities it is usually disqualified from this title.
Hydrostatic Head: The distance a volume of water has to fall in order to generate power.
Intermittent Energy Source: Any source of energy that is not continuously available due to a factor that is outside of direct control (ex. Wind speed or sunshine).
An internal combustion engine operates by burning its fuel inside the engine, rather than outside of it, as an external, or steam engine does. The most common internal combustion engine type is gasoline powered, followed by diesel, hydrogen, methane, and propane. Engines typically require adaptations (like adjusting the air/fuel ratio) to run on a different kind of fuel than they were designed for. Four-stroke internal combustion engines (each stroke marks a step in the combustion cycle) dominate the automotive and industrial realm today.
Kinetic Energy: The ability of water falling from a dam to do work, that is, to generate electricity. Water stored above a dam has potential energy which turns to kinetic energy once it begins to fall.
Levelized Cost of Electricity: The cost of generating electricity (capital, operation and maintenance costs). Measured in units of currency per unit of electricity (ex. kWh).
Magnetic Survey: A technique for measuring the intensity of magnetic fields from several stations.
Manhattan Project: The massive Anglo-American-Canadian scientific undertaking which produced the atomic bombs that helped end the Second World War. It marked the birth of the nuclear age and scientists were immediately aware of the potential to use use nuclear power for civilian use.
Market Penetration: The share of the total energy market a specific energy source has in relation to its competitors. So the market penetration of wind power would be measured by its share of the electricity market, while ethanol would be compared to other vehicle fuels, not to total primary energy use.
Matrix: In geology, this is the finer mass of tiny sediments in which larger sediments are embedded.
Methanol: Methanol is produced naturally in the anaerobic metabolism of many types of bacteria, and is ubiquitous in the environment. Methanol is toxic in humans if ingested or contacted on the skin. For its toxic properties and close boiling point with ethanol, that it is used as a denaturant for ethanol.
Miscanthus: A low maintenance perennial grass which is thought to be twice as productive as switch grass as it has a longer growing season, greater leaf area, and higher carbon storage per unit of leaf area.
MMBtu: A unit of measurement which means a million Btus (British thermal units). A Btu is roughly the amount of energy it takes to heat a half kilogram of water from 3.8 to 4.4 °C. MBtu is used for a thousand Btus.
Moderator: A moderator is used to slow down neutrons, which enables them to react with the atoms in the nuclear fuel. If enough atoms react then the reactor can sustain a nuclear chain reaction.
M Mount St. Helens is an active volcano located in Washington state. It is most famous for its catastrophic eruption on May 18, 1980 where fifty-seven people were killed, 250 homes, 47 bridges, 24 km of railways, and 298 km of highway were destroyed.
Mud-Pools: Pools of bubbling mud. Also known as "paint-pots" when the slurry of usually grey mud is streaked with red or pink spots from iron compounds.
Nacelle: The housing atop a wind turbine that holds the gearbox, generator, drive train and brakes, as well as the rotors.
Name-Plate Capacity: The intended full-load sustained output of a power plant. For example an average wind turbine's name-plate capacity is 2 Megawatts. The capacity factor is the actual output, so for that 2 MW wind turbine with an efficiency of around 30-35% (average) then it has a more realistic capacity of around 0.7 MW. Most power stations are listed in terms of their nameplate capacity.
National Energy Board: A regulatory agency established by the federal government in 1959 that is primarily tasked with regulating oil and gas pipelines that cross provincial and national borders.
National Energy Program: A set of policies enacted in 1980 that sought to make Canada energy independent. Petro-Canada was created and oil prices were kept artificially low to protect consumers. Shares of oil revenue were diverted to the federal government who used them mostly in the eastern provinces to offset a decline in manufacturing. The program was extremely unpopular in western Canada and was discontinued shortly thereafter.
Nuclear Renaissance: A term used by politicians and the media for the renewed interest in nuclear energy in the past decade. Many countries are now expanding their civilian nuclear programs.
Octane: The octane rating of a fuel is indicated on the pump – using numbers such as 87, 90, 91 etc. The higher the number, the greater the octane rating of the gasoline.
Oil in Place: The total hydrocarbon (oil and gas) content of a reservoir. Sometimes called STOOIP or Stock Tank Original Oil In Place.
Oil Patch: A term for the Canadian oil industry. This specifically means the upstream operations that find and extract oil and gas, mostly in Alberta but also B.C., the other prairie provinces, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Oil Window: The range of temperature at which oil forms. Below a certain temperature and kerogen will never progress to the form of oil. Too high and natural gas is formed instead.
OECD: The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development is a 34 country organization dedicated to advocating democracy and the market economy. Membership is largely limited to Western Europe, North America, Australia and Japan, what are often considered the world's developed nations. Sometimes referred to in the media as the "rich countries' club".
Passive Seismic Survey: A way to detect oil and gas by measuring the Earths natural low frequency movements.
Peak Power Demand: Power demand varies over minutes, hours, days and months. Peak power demand are the times when the most people are using the most power. To meet this demand extra sources of power must be switched on. Some forms of electricity generation, such as natural gas turbines, can be turned on quickly to meet peak power demand and are better suited for this purpose than others, such as nuclear, which are better as sources of baseload power.
Permeability: A measure of the ability of a porous rock to allow fluids to pass through it. High permeability in the surrounding rocks is needed for the formation of gas reserves.
Photovoltaic Cell: A non-mechanical device typically fabricated from silicon alloys that generates electricity from direct sunlight.
Pickens Plan: Investment of $1 trillion into wind power in the U.S.A., named for an American oil tycoon. The plan aims to reduce the amount of foreign oil imported to the U.S.A. while providing economic and environmental benefits.
Pondage: The main difference between small and large hydro projects is the existence of stored power in the form of water which is held back by dams at large hydro stations. Some small hydro projects have pondage, however, which are small ponds behind the weir of a dam which can store water for up to a week.
Potential Energy: The energy stored in a body or a system.
Porosity: Closely related to permeability, this is a measure of the amount of "voids," or empty space in a rock where gas or oil can pass through to collect in a reservoir.
Possible Reserves: Possible reserves are a class of unproven reserves that geologists use for oil that they are only 10% sure is present in the ground.
Purchasing Power Agreement: A contract between two parties, one who generates power for sale, and another who is looking to purchase it. B.C. Hydro buys power from companies that build their own power generating stations.
Primary Battery: A primary battery is one that is non-rechargable because the electrochemical reaction goes only one way. It gives out energy and cannot be reversed.
Primary Gas: The degeneration of decayed organic matter directly into gas through a process called "thermal cracking." This is opposed to secondary gas which is formed from decayed oil that has already formed.
Probable Reserves: Probable reserves are a class of unproven reserves that geologists use for oil or gas that they are at least 50% sure is actually present.
Proven Reserves: An amount of a resource any resource to be dug out of the ground (oil, coal, natural gas or uranium in energy terms) that geologists have a 90% or higher certainty can be extracted for a commercial gain with the technology available at the time."
Recompleted: The process, by which an old oil well is redrilled, fractured, or has some other technology applied to improve the amount of oil recovered.
Reforming: In oil refining, reforming is using heat to break down, or crack, hydrocarbon atoms and increase their octane level. This technique creates some left-over hydrogen which can be collected and used.
Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS): Law that requires electric utilities to produce some portion of their power from renewable sources like wind, solar, geothermal or biomass. RPSs are necessary to keep renewables competitive in an era of cheap natural gas electricity.
Rent-Seeking: The practice of using resources to compete for existing wealth rather than to create new wealth, often to the detriment of those who seek to reform societies or institutions. Economies that fail to diversify away from oil are often pre-dominated by a rent-seeking mind-set where people become more pre-occupied with securing the windfall resouce profits for themselves, usually oil, rather than seeking to develop new industries.
Reserves: The fraction of the oil in place that can be considered extractable. This depends not only on the geology, but the economics (is oil expensive enough to make extracting it profitable?) and technology.
Reserve Growth: When an oil or gas field is first discovered, reserve estimates tend to be low. The estimates of the size of the field are expected to grow over time and this is called reserves growth.
Ring of Fire: The Pacific Ring of Fire is a region of high volcanic and seismic activity that surrounds the majority of the Pacific Ocean. This region is essentially a horseshoe of geologic activity, characterized by volcanoes, earthquakes, deep sea trenches, and major fault zones.
Riparian: The term riparian refers to the wetland area surrounding rivers or streams. A riparian ecosystem refers to the biological community supported by an area around a river.
Savonius Turbine: Uses drag generated by the wind hitting the cup, like aerofoils, to create rotation.
Second Generation Wind Turbine: Technology that is only now beginning to enter the market as a result of research, development and demonstration. These are: solar, wind, tidal, advanced geothermal and modern bioenergy. Much hope has been placed upon these technologies but they still provide only a fraction of our energy.
Secondary Battery: Rechargable batteries are sometimes known as secondary batteries because their electro-chemical reactions can be reversed.
Secondary Gas: When oil is subjected to so much heat and pressure it degenerates into gas. The process through which this happens called "thermal cracking."
Secondary Recovery Schemes: When so much oil has been sucked out of an oil reservoir it will lose pressure and the oil will no longer flow out of the reservoir from natural pressure. When this happens secondary recovery schemes can be employed. This means that fluids or gases are pumped into the well to increase pressure and push the remaining oil up out of the well.
Shale: A type of sedimentary rock with low permeability, which was once thought to prevent any commercial extraction of the gas inside. Fracking allows gas developers to access it.
Sound Navigation and Ranging (SONAR): Initially devised as a technique for detecting submarines. An emitter sends off pulses of sound. The pulses bounce off objects and return to a receiver which interprets their size and distance.
Spot Market: A market where commodities are traded for immediate delivery. A future market on the other hand is one where delivery is expected later on. Because of the dependence of gas users on those who are at the other end of the gas pipeline, the natural gas market is mostly a futures market.
Steam Coal: Steam coal is coal used for power generation in thermal power plants. This is typically coal that ranges in quality from sub-bituminous to bituminous.
Straight Vegetable Oil (SVO): Vegetable oil fuel. Most diesel engine vehicles can run on it so long as the viscosity of the oil is lowered enough for complete combustion. Failure to do this can damage the engine. SVO is also known as pure plant oil or PPO.
Strategic Petroleum Reserve: An emergency store of oil maintained by some governments and corporations. The U.S. Department of Energy holds 727 million barrels of oil.
Subcritical Power Plant: A coal-fired power plant that operates at less than 550ËšC. Because the temperatures and pressures are than other plants, these plants operate at a low efficiency, around 33-35%. These plants are still the most common in the world and many are under construction
Supercritical Power Plant: Supercritical plants are coal powered power plants that can sustain temperatures of 550ËšC to 590ËšC and transfer up to 40% of the coals energy into power. This technology has only come into use in recent years. Most new coal-fired power plants built in the West are supercritical.
Switchgrass: One of the dominant native species of the North American prairies, tallgrass is being researched as a renewable bioenergy crop. It is a a native perennial warm season grass with the ability to produce moderate to high yields on marginal farmlands.
Thermal Power Plant: A thermal power plant is any that is powered by a steam turbine. The steam is created by heating water which in turn spins the turbine. Most coal and gas power stations operate in this way, as do all nuclear plants. Coal powered and gas plants are often just called thermal plants.
Total Carbon Cost: The amount of carbon dioxide emitted during an action or a process. One exmaple is building a natural gas plant. The total carbon cost would include everything from the carbon emitted to get the materials to build the plant, to the carbon emitted in the building of the plant, and the carbon emitted during the operation of the plant.
Unconventional Gas: Unconventional gas reserves come in many different geological formations, and include tight gas, shale gas, coalbed methane and methane hydrates. Extraction of these sources has only just begun and has hugely extended the lives of many gas fields and unlocking many new ones. The unlocking of unconventional gas reserves in the last five years has revolutionized the global energy system.
Ultracritical Power Plant: These are coal thermal power plants that operate above 590ËšC and can attain efficiencies above 40%. These plants are just coming into service.
Undiscovered Reserves: The amount of oil and gas estimated to exist in unexplored areas. Much of B.C. has not been thoroughly explored for fossil fuel potential and many of the estimates of B.C. fossil fuel resources rely on the concept of undiscovered resources
United States Geological Survey (USGS): The United States Geological Survey. The department responsible for estimating American fossil fuel reserves. They also conduct many studies that span the globe.
Unproven Reserves: Oil reserves in the ground that petroleum geologists are less certain are there, but have strong reason to believe is present. Unproven reserves can be broken down into probable reserves and possible reserves. These numbers are used within oil companies but not usually published.
The portion of the oil business that involves finding oil and extracting it.
Uranium is a heavy metal that is naturally radioactive. An isotope, U-235 can be enriched to support a nuclear chain reaction. Uranium is used in many nuclear power plants.
A 2,730 MW dam built in north-eastern British Columbia along the Peace River during the 1960s.
Any activity where humans bore down into the Earth to access reserves of oil or gas trapped in underground geological formations.
These are produced from wood residue (like sawdust) collected from sawmills and wood product manufacturers. Heat and pressure are used to transform wood residue into pellets without chemical additives, binders or glue. The pellets can be used in stoves and boilers.
A remote mountain in Western Nevada where the U.S. Department of Energy has planned on storing all of the country's spent nuclear fuel underground since the 1990s. The proposal met stiff opposition from local residents and in 2009 the project was cancelled.