The significance of coal in global electricity generation and its environmental impact

Coal has played a major role in the Industrial Revolution, helping to fuel economic growth all over the world. However, its production and use have become controversial due to the environmental impact associated with it.

Critics describe coal as the dirtiest and most polluting way of producing energy. Calls to phase out coal entirely are becoming increasingly common, with organizations like Greenpeace, the United Nations Secretary General, and the International Energy Agency advocating for the same. However, given its role in fostering economic development, particularly in emerging markets, the phase-out of coal is a complex issue.

Coal – A Thorny Issue in Global Energy Transition

The debate surrounding coal and its role in the transition to a sustainable future remains paradoxical. Nevertheless, a U.S. firm, Ramaco Resources, recently offered insights into how coal might have a role to play in the future, specifically in relation to rare earth elements (REE).

The company published an independent report, in collaboration with mining consultancy Weir International and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, on the technical assessment of rare earth elements found at one of its mines in Wyoming. It revealed that the mine contained an unconventional deposit of rare earth elements, making it potentially significant in the global supply of these critical minerals.

Furthermore, revelations about alternative uses of coal, as suggested by Ramaco’s CEO Randall Atkins, indicated a potential turning point in the industry.

Coal and Rare Earth Extraction in the United States

To add to the glimmer of hope, other initiatives in the United States are investigating means to extract rare earth elements from coal waste, demonstrating potential economic and environmental breakthroughs in this field.

In Scotland, researchers have explored the potential of flooded disused coal mines as a source of decarbonized heating for buildings, as part of efforts to repurpose said mines for further use. Additionally, efforts to source lithium from geothermal power generation in southwest England have demonstrated promising results, with enough lithium to supply 250,000 electric car batteries per year anticipated.

Overall, while acknowledging the substantial role of coal in electricity generation, breakthroughs in rare earth extraction from coal and the repurposing of disused coal mines represent opportunities for a more sustainable future. Asked if similar discoveries might be made in the future, Ramaco’s CEO expressed cautious optimism, suggesting that future breakthroughs were indeed logical.