COAL: Ancient Gift Serving Modern Man
American Coal Foundation
Using Coal in America
There was a time when coal directly served a variety of important uses in our society. We burned it to heat our homes. It powered the nation's railroads and factories. Coal was used to make coke, essential to the steelmaking processes. The gaseous by-products of coke-ovens were the raw materials from which we derived hundreds of chemicals and other products -- from aspirin to nylons -- to meet the need of a growing country.
Today, coal's most important contribution to our society is electricity. It is the fuel predominantly used to produce steam to drive the turbines of power plant generators. Electric utilities account for nearly four-fifths of all the coal consumed in the United States, using it to satisfy more than half of the nation's electricity requirements. Because the use of electricity as a major energy source is increasing -- it accounts for more than half of the energy use outside the transportation sector -- coal's role is expected to grow.
The manufacture of iron and steel, traditionally coal's second largest market, has slowed considerably in recent years. The widespread use of plastics as substitutes for metals, the effects of imported steel on domestic steel makers, and changes in metallurgical technology have combined to reduce the amount of steel produced in the United States. As a result, the consumption of coal for the production of coke also has been reduced.
Aside from steel, the use of coal in the nation's industrial sector has been growing. Among industrial groups that have increased their use of coal are chemicals; cement, stone clay, and glass; paper; and food processing. As a whole, they constitute coal's second-largest market after electric power generation.
About 10 percent of U.S. coal is exported to other countries. Overseas customers tend to meet a portion of their needs by purchasing from us, if for no other reason than to make certain they have a source of supply in the event other producing countries can't deliver. But the costs of producing and transporting our coals keeps them from being keenly competitive on the world market. Other coal-producing countries are closer to the markets for which we compete, or are able to produce their coal more cheaply.