Electric Power & Utilities/Natural gas vs. Coal


I know that natural gas is much cleaner to burn than coal, with the BTU rating much lower, how can burning much more natural gas benefit consumers in the long run? If I've read correctly, one ton of thermal coal will produce around twenty five million BTU's of heat. With natural gas ten thousand cubic ft. would have to be burned to produce the same. Is this correct?  A small increase in natural gas prices would then devastate those on fixed incomes, would it not? Thanks, Steve

With the new technology of "fracking" to cheaply produce oil and gas from tight sands and shale formations that were formerly too expensive to produce, there is now far more gas available than previously and the cost of energy from gas is now much cheaper than previously. In fact, with the low cost of gas, the average U.S. cost of electricity from gas is now about equal to the cost of electricity from coal, thus we see a lot more electricity coming from gas these days, and less from coal.
With the urgent need to reduce CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuel in making electricity, the use of gas instead of coal is a logical and economic choice. Electricity from gas, using efficient combined cycle power plants, emits about 60% less CO2 per kWh than electricity from coal burned in much less efficient steam boiler power plants.
Also, many of todays coal boiler plants are old, and not really worth spending the money on to reduce their emissions of other pollutants like SO2 and NOx, so as to be as clean as the newest coal power plants. Thus many of the older, dirtier coal power plants are simply being retired/shut down by utilities, mostly because they were not being used all that much anyway. Whatever power they did provide will then be replaced with cleaner power from existing gas plants that have unused capacity, or some new gas plants will be built as the most economic choice.
These choices are being made by the utilities, who are looking into the future just as you are, using their best judgement about how much gas will be available over the next 50 years, and how much it will cost compared to coal.
Gas prices will eventually start to increase, of course, as more and more is used, but that increase is expected to gradual, over decades, not overnight.
Bye the way, cheap coal supplies in the eastern U.S., as you have known in W VA, are becoming scarcer as the most economic mines become depleted, and as mountaintop mining is curtailed. So, eastern coal prices have also been rising and will continue to rise, as well.
In short, the cost of electricity from either coal or gas fuels will become gradually more expensive in any case, and will become even more expensive if we have to start capturing the CO2 from smokestacks instead of using more electricity from wind, sun, hyrdo, nuclear, and end use energy efficiency - all of which produce little or no CO2.
Thanks for your interesting question.

Electric Power & Utilities

All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


W.A. (Bill) Stevens


I can explain the technical and economic tradeoffs of making electricity from natural gas, coal, nuclear, wind, solar, and biomass energy sources. I'm familiar with air pollution control technologies, including CO2 capture and sequestration. I have a good understanding of the science on global warming and can explain how energy use inefficiencies and various fuels and technologies contribute to that process. I can tell you why we have to build more new gas, nuclear, wind, and solar power plants, but will still have to keep using coal for a few decades to make elctricity. I can explain energy conversion efficiency and power plant operations. However ... I'm not an electrician, so probably cannot help with questions on motors or wiring. ;-)


Forty years as a registered professional mechanical engineer.

Graduate of Purdue University, School of Mechanical Engineering.

Past/Present Clients
EPA, DOE, State Department, USAID, World Bank, Bechtel Power Corporation, U.S. Generating Company, numerous electric utility and independent power companies.

©2016 About.com. All rights reserved.