The Canary in the Coal Mine of a Healthy Economy

By July 26, 2007Energy

From Popular Mechanics, a welcome dose of economic and energy-related reality.

Few things seem as anachronistic as an underground coal mine. Black-faced miners in lamps and hard hats; coal trains and company towns — the images are seared in our brains and in our folklore. Images of an old smokestack economy that’s largely been supplanted by the industrial might of the semiconductor. Except that all those computers, HDTVs, groovy little iPods and other silicon-chip wonders would fall silent if it weren’t for coal. Wind, water, nuclear, oil, natural gas, solar energies — add them all up and together they barely produce as much electricity as coal.

Last year, America consumed more than 1 billion tons of the mineral. At the present rate, using existing extraction technology, the reserves will last 243 years. Coal is dramatically cheap to mine, too: In 2005 it cost $8.66 to produce a million BTU of oil; the equivalent energy from coal cost $1.19. About two-thirds of America’s favorite fossil fuel comes from surface mines (about 778 million tons); the rest is produced in underground mines, mainly in Appalachia.

The magazine illustrates the story with a photo of an underground mine, so out of a sense of balance, we provide this photo and this from a recent visit to North Dakota and tour of the Falkirk Mine, which supplies lignite to Great River Energy’s Coal Creek Station, without which Minnesota would be very cold indeed.

Great things going on in Coal Country, technologically and otherwise, which we’ll report on during the August recess.

Hat tip: Glenn Reynolds, who asks, “Just remember, the electricity has to come from somewhere. And when the brownouts and blackouts start, will people blame the environmentalists, or the power companies — and politicians?”

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