The Benefits That Coal Fired Power Gave Us

Posted on Fri 05/13/2016 by


TonyfromOzProfileImageBy Anton Lang ~

Is there information anywhere which can effectively show the benefits of coal fired power? Could that information be used to show what is happening now in China, to show some context as to why they are constructing new technology coal fired plants like there was no tomorrow?

I found some information which does just that. The data is for electrical power consumption, and is from perhaps the only place data like this might be available, the U.S. This data stretches back 67 years, back to 1949, and why it is worth looking at is to compare it with what is currently happening in China and to a lesser extent, India, which is doing the same thing as China, only eight to ten years behind them.

Okay then, this is the link to that data. From that link, this image below shows total power consumption dating back to 1949, and note here the very low point it was in 1949 compared to what it is now. If you click on the image it will open in a new and larger window.


Besides this graph for consumption, this first link also shows all the data for the distribution (for consumption) of all electrical power in the U.S. in the three main sectors (Residential, Commerce and Industrial) from 1949 till 2014.

This is a secondary link for context, and this second link shows the data for power plant generation by source from 1949 till 2015, and this second image shows a graphic of that power generation by source, (or, power plant construction) and here the blue dots show coal fired power plants. Again, click on the image and it will open in a new and larger window.


Firstly, what I want to direct you to here is the Table 7.6 at the first link. As you can see, there is a scroll bar, and you can wind it all the way back to 1949, not the top one but the one under the year dates.

Back in 1949, total power consumed was 254,511 GWH, (here referred to as Million KWH, same thing) and for comparison, the 2014 figure is 3,764,700GWH, a factor of almost 15 times greater. So, in effect, back in 1949, the U.S. was only consuming 6.5% of the power it is consuming now. True, there were less people, but the population has only a little more than doubled, while power consumption has gone up to 15 times as much.

Now, from that data, note the distribution of power for those three sectors of consumption in 1949 and here I’ll just do percentages. The Residential Sector consumed only 26.3% of all generated power. The Commerce Sector, 23.1% and the Industrial Sector, 48.2%. Note here that almost half the power being consumed is in the Industrial sector. That power consumption in the Residential sector in 1949 is only 4.7% of what it is now.

Now, at the second link (which also has that scrolling facility) you can see how power plant construction ramped up considerably, especially in coal fired plant construction up until the late 80’s, with Nuclear power starting to deliver in the early to mid 1960’s, and then it also rose considerably.

Industry boomed, quite literally, and because of that, electrical power was needed, lots of it, and power plant construction then increased considerably to meet that demand, and most of the electricity went to that Industrial sector. At one stage in the mid to late 1950’s Industry was consuming more than half, and as high as almost 55% of all power being generated. As a result, consumption in the other two sectors also started to rise, but their percentage for consumption only changed slowly, with Industry always getting the bulk of the power. Industry always came first, and then consumption in the other two sectors followed from that.

It took until 1991/93 for consumption in the Industrial sector to fall to second highest consumer, surpassed now by Residential, and still Power consumption in all three sectors was rising. Industry steadied for around five years, and then began to decline, sometimes quite rapidly, and in 1998 the Commerce sector passed the Industrial sector for power consumption. So now, in 2014, Industry is now the third highest consumer with only 26.5% of consumption, less than half the percentage it was in the 50’s. Industry has declined so far it is now consuming a lesser total power than it was in 1994.

Even so, the overall rise in generation is by a factor of 15. The Industrial sector shows a greater consumption by a factor of 4. However, power consumption in the Residential sector has risen by a factor of 21.3, and Commerce by a factor of 23.4.

When it comes to power plant construction, even as recently as 2003, Coal fired power generation was 51% of all power generation, and is now down to 33% of all generation, and now has a lower total power generation (in total GWH generated) than it was in 1985. Back in 1956, coal fired power made up 56% of all power generation, and in 1985 to 1987, it was 57% of all power generation. In 1987, the next highest generation method was Nuclear Power with 17.5%, then Natural Gas at 10.5% and Hydro at 9.8%, so, Coal fired power was supplying more than three times the power of the next highest method of power generation.

It was far and away the most prevalent method for generating large scale electrical power.

It didn’t just stop there though. Coal fired power led to advancements in the technology of the power plants themselves. Back in 1949, those coal fired power plants were fairly small units, mainly around 10MW up to some as large as 50MW, but most in the range of 10 to 20MW. With the need for more power, and in huge amounts, the technology of every part of coal fired power advanced. The technology of the generators themselves advanced, and from that, all aspects of the plant back from that also had to advance as well. The plants became cleaner all round with less particulates being emitted from the burning of the coal itself. Those early pre 60’s, 50’s, and earlier plants were dirty. The technology advanced to the stage that in the mid 80’s those plants became able to deliver huge amounts of power. Generator technology had advanced to the stage where one unit was driving a single generator capable of generating up to 660MW, with some as large as 800MW, and most of the larger plants had four units, hence a huge amount of power from the one power plant. The efficiency of the plants also improved out of sight as well, as they had less down time. In the mid to late 80’s coal fired power plant construction eased back in the U.S. Even then, the technology for coal fired power still advanced, and again, every facet of the power plants themselves changed, and even now, in 2015, plant technology is still advancing with many of the huge manufacturers of that equipment still making regular advances. Now with the newer HELE (High Efficiency Low Emissions) coal fired power plants operating at the USC (UltraSuperCritical) level, those huge plants are generating more power per single unit, and burning less coal than those 80’s technology plants. Currently, the technology has advanced so far, that a single unit can drive ONE generator capable of generating 1,300MW, the equivalent of maybe 60 to 100 of those 1949 technology units. Technology is still advancing from there even. Those newer technology USC plants are the ones currently being built in China, and now in other parts of the World as well. The image below shows one of those new technology plants in China, and if you have the image of a dirty coal fired power plant in your mind, this image dispels that classification of ‘dirty coal fired power’. (Again, if you click on the image, it will open in a new and larger window)

Steam turbine/Generator Units at the ultra-supercritical Waigaoqiao No. 3 (Shanghai) (photo courtesy of IEA CCC)

Steam turbine/Generator Units at the ultra-supercritical Waigaoqiao No. 3 (Shanghai) (photo courtesy of IEA CCC)

Now, the point I’m trying to make here is that all that power plant expansion was to supply Industry first, and as America boomed industrially, then power to that residential sector came with it, but in the beginning it was nearly all for Industry. By far the largest supplier of electrical power in those days WAS in fact coal fired power. It was the only method of power generation actually able to supply the large scale power required to actually deliver power to Industry which was expanding considerably. That Industry then provided the jobs, and from those jobs, people became more prosperous, and from that prosperity people then moved into homes with all the modern conveniences, which required greater electricity to run them all. So power consumption in that residential sector also rose considerably, and there was now plenty of power available for just that, again, most of it from coal fired power. But first, Industry needed that power, large amounts of it, and most of it from coal fired power. The benefits of that large scale power then flowed on to the homes we all lived in, and then from that, the Commerce sector to keep all of that going.

Okay then, now compare that to what is happening now in China. Eight years ago, power consumption in the Residential sector in China was as low as only 8%. Now that is up to around 19%. When consumption in that Residential sector was at only 8%, nearly 75% of all the power being generated was going straight to Industry. China is constructing new tech coal fired plants hand over fist to supply the burgeoning Industrial sector, and as that is happening, in much the same way as it happened in the U.S. the residential sector is coming along as well, as more and more people gain access to electrical power. A similar situation is happening in India, and also in other Developing Countries. As Industry demands power, then the people will get that access to electricity that we take so much for granted, electricity they do not have, or have in only limited amounts with no regular supply.

The prosperity in the U.S. came about when it industrialised on a huge scale, all of it thanks to coal fired power. There is nothing (currently acceptable) that can replace coal fired power.

The same thing is now happening in China, and also in other still developing Countries. It worked for us, and now it’s giving them the same benefit as it gave us.

While coal fired power is now vilified, it gave us all the benefits we now have become so used to having.

Anton Lang uses the screen name of TonyfromOz, and he writes at this site, PA Pundits International on topics related to electrical power generation, from all sources, concentrating mainly on Renewable Power, and how the two most favoured methods of renewable power generation, Wind Power and all versions of Solar Power, fail comprehensively to deliver levels of power required to replace traditional power generation. His Bio is at this link.