"There was a quickening of life in the community. Schools, churches and meeting places now had lights… electric improvements created new economic activity along Main Street. New business and new kinds of businesses began to appear—electric wiring, plumbing and new electric appliances… These new employment opportunities gave hope, promise and a future to the younger generation." When Electricity Came to the Ozarks
Coal Will Continue to Build America
Why Coal is called the cornerstone of our electric power system
Despite the magnitude of this contribution, however, coal’s past is only prologue to its future. The United States has more coal than OPEC has oil and more coal than Iran and Russia have natural gas. Coal can reliably provide affordable electric power to Americans for the next 250 years or more. In short, coal has been, is and will continue to be the cornerstone of not only our electric power system but also of our economic prosperity and a cleaner environment. Clean coal technology works, and with the advent of carbon capture and storage we can actually utilize CO2 emissions to produce at least four million of barrels of oil per day through enhanced oil recovery (EOR). In terms of electricity, the EIA recently concluded: "By 2025, due to higher prices the electric power sector primarily shifts to coal-fired generation… though there is some decrease in total generation due to the higher price of natural gas"
Coal as the demonstrated foundation of socioeconomic development: The discovery of large coal reserves and the development of technology to deliver energy from these reserves literally provided the fuel for a growth engine in which declining costs for energy contributed to lower prices for goods and services. Increasing demand for these lower priced outputs then drove costs down further due to economies of scale and learning effects. U.S. coal utilization provides a classic example of this growth engine:
Coal Power unleashed half the population
In 1900, surveys indicated that the typical housewife spent over 60 hours a week cooking cleaning and doing laundry (Bower, 2000). Food preparation was very time consuming. Wood had to be cut or coal hauled. Fuel stoves had to be cleaned; virtually no houses had indoor plumbing and meals were prepared from scratch. Over the next several decades, however, a wide range of domestic electricity-based appliances became available — from vacuum cleaners to refrigerators to washing machines to the ever sought after electric lights.
In "Engines of Liberation," Greenwood et.al. (2005) noted that with the rise of electricity these labor saving devices were nothing less than a household revolution that was, in many ways, socially equivalent to the industrial revolution. Before the onset of electricity, most married women worked at home. By the end of the century, however, the majority would work in the open market. The technological progress engendered by the availability of electricity to the household sector played a major role in liberating women from the home. Without electricity it would not have been possible for women to spend more time outside the home despite any shift in societal attitudes. To paraphrase Greenwood: while sociology may have provided the fuel for the women’s movement, the spark that ignited it came from coal based electricity.
Steel and cement are the building blocks of modern civilization. Without coal neither can be produced at the scale needed to keep pace with a rapidly urbanizing world.
U.S. Coal Use and Urbanization
And Farms Too
Perhaps no area benefitted more from the rise of coal based electricity over the last century than rural America. In the early 1900s, farming regions and small towns were truly at the end of the line. Less than one in 20 farms was electrified and the hard life of the farm was pushing people off the land. During the decade 1922 -1930, almost 6.5 million people, most of them young, moved from the farms to cities. It was clear something had to be done to elevate the quality of life in rural areas. The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 was a major step forward in providing electricity to farmers and small towns across the nation. Far more than half of this electricity came from coal—often through Rural Electric Cooperatives operating today.
Coal powered equality
About the author: Frank Clemente, Ph.D.
Dr. Clemente is Professor Emeritus at Penn State University where he specializes in research on the socioeconomic aspects of energy policy. His work has appeared in World Oil, Public Utilities Fortnightly, Oil and Gas Journal and a variety of other energy related media.
The materials presented here are solely the responsibility of the author and do not represent Pennsylvania State University in any manner.
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