Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Big Coal

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Big Coal

The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future

by Jeff Goodell

Big Coal by Jeff Goodell X
Big Coal by Jeff Goodell
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2006, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2007, 352 pages

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Facts & Stats according to Big Coal

  • More than 1/2 of the USA's electricity comes from coal.
  • The USA burns more than a billion tons a year - an average of 20 lbs per person per day.
  • Coal plants account for 40% of carbon dioxide emissions in the USA.
  • According to alternate energy guru Amory Lovins of The Rocky Mountain Institute, by the time you mine the coal, haul it to the power plant, burn it, and then send electricity over the wires to a light bulb, only about 3% of the energy in a ton of coal is transformed into light. Just the energy wasted by coal plants in the USA would be enough to power the entire Japanese economy!
  • In the 1920s there were more than 700,000 USA coal miners, today there are more florists than there are miners.
  • Waste from mountain-top removal mining (removing the mountain to reveal the coal) in Appalachia alone has turned about 400,000 acres of once biologically rich temperate forest into flat, barren wasteland.
  • About 25% of the world's recoverable coal reserves are in the USA (270 billion tons), versus Europe (36 billion tons), China (126 billion tons) and Russia (176 billion tons).

How reliant is the world on fossil fuels?

  • Between 1950 and 2000 the world's population grew by about 140% but consumption of fossil fuels grew by 400%.
  • In 1999, 80% of the energy the world consumed was in the form of fossil fuels (coal: 24%, oil: 37%, gas: 21%); 7% was nuclear (led by France which gets about 50% of its energy requirements from nuclear); The remaining 13% was from renewable sources, of which 11% was from solid biomass including wood*, 2% hydro and less than 1% from other renewables such as geothermal, solar, wind etc.
    Source: EarthTrends 2003.

Interesting to note: The British Empire was built in part on its large deposits of coal. Ironically, through much of the nineteenth century, few people considered coal smoke to be pollution. In fact they considered it a valuable disinfectant because its carbon and sulfur were thought capable of rendering miasma** harmless.

*Technically speaking, wood is a renewable resource, so long as it's harvested in a sustainable fashion - which it often is not.

**Up until the middle of the 18th century it was believed that an invisible, foul smelling gas caused by decomposing matter, known as miasma (from the Greek for pollution) was the cause of diseases such as cholera.

This article was originally published in August 2006, and has been updated for the April 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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