Coal’s Past, Present, and Future

Although coal has always been an important and plentiful fuel source, many people may not realize just how long it has been used or how much it is used today. A look at past and present uses of coal can tell us what the future of coal might be.
The Past
Coal has been used for nearly as long as mankind has thrived. In fact, coal was used to provide heat in caveman times!
In the 1300s in what is now the United States, Native Americans used coal for cooking, making clay pots, and heating. By the mid-1700s, the first U.S. coal mining operations opened in Virginia.
Wood charcoal had long been used to provide fuel in England, but in the 18th century it was discovered that coal burned cleaner and hotter. Soon after, coal use skyrocketed during the Industrial Revolution, when demands for energy sources increased.
Coal was used to fuel the boilers on steam-powered trains, which became a popular mode of transportation in 19th-century America. At the same time, coal was being used in the production of weapons during the American Civil War, and coke (a coal residue) took charcoal’s place as the primary fuel for making steel.
About 100 years ago in the United States, coal’s abundance led to its widespread use for heating homes, generating electricity, providing cooking heat, powering railroads and boats, and fueling factories.
The Present
Although coal may not be as visible today as it was around 1900, it is even more prevalent as a source of fuel. Coal production has increased by more than 70 percent since 1970.
If you use electricity, chances are that you are a coal consumer. Nine out of every 10 tons of coal mined in the United States today is used to generate electricity. About 56 percent of the electricity used in this country is coal-generated electricity.
Electricity generation is just one use of coal in the United States. In addition, manufacturing plants and industries use coal to make chemicals, cement, paper, ceramics, and metal products, to name a few. Methanol and ethylene, which can be made from coal gas, are used to make products such as plastics, medicines, fertilizers, and tar.
Certain industries consume large amounts of coal. For example, concrete and paper companies burn coal, and the steel industry uses coke and coal by-products to make steel for bridges, buildings, and automobiles.
About 9 percent of U.S.-mined coal is exported to some 40 countries, including Canada, Japan, and Western European nations.
The Future
The United States has about a 235-year supply of coal, if it continues to use it at the same rate as today. This is promising because, in addition to the many existing ways to use coal, the future holds new methods and potential for growth. Products from coal may soon be part of communications and transportation systems, computer networks, and even space expeditions.
Coal will likely continue to be an important source of electricity generation because it is more abundant and cost-effective than oil and natural gas. Compare these energy costs per million British thermal units (Btus):

  • Coal—$1.20
  • Oil—$4.45
  • Natural gas—$4.30

Although coal is widely used for electricity generation in the United States and in countries throughout Europe, there will likely be a significant increase in the use of coal for electricity generation in countries such as China and India.
In addition to these new and increased uses of coal, new technologies will continue to enhance our ability to identify the shape and composition of untapped coal reserves. Core samples and information about the layers of overburden (the topsoil, subsoil, and other layers of earth and rock covering the coal bed) can be analyzed before the expensive process of coal removal begins. New technologies will also continue to improve the effects of the production and use of coal on the environment.
For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Coalbed Methane Outreach Program seeks to work with coal companies to reduce methane gas emissions associated with coal mining. Since 1990, methane recovered and used productively at coal mines has increased from 13.8 billion cubic feet to 37.2 billion cubic feet. To find our more about this innovative program, click here.


Return to Coal Energy Facts