Did you know?

A pound of coal supplies enough electricity to power ten 100-watt light bulbs for about an hour.

Coal was the source of about 18% of U.S. total primary energy consumption in 2014. About 93% of the coal consumed in the United States is used to generate electricity by the electric power sector. The remaining 7% of coal is used as an energy source in many industries like the steel, cement, and paper industries.

Electric power

Coal is used to produce about 39% of all the electricity generated in the United States. Power plants can make steam by burning coal. The steam then turns turbines (machines for generating rotary mechanical power) to generate electricity.

Many industries and businesses have their own power plants, and some use coal to generate electricity, mostly in combined heat and power plants.


Blast furnace in a modern steel works
Blast furnace in a modern steel works

Source: BBC (copyrighted)

Many industries use coal and coal byproducts. The concrete and paper industries burn large amounts of coal to produce heat. The steel industry uses coal indirectly to make steel. First, coal is baked in furnaces to make coal coke, and then the coke is used to smelt iron ore into iron to make steel. The high temperatures created by burning coke give steel the strength and flexibility needed for bridges, buildings, and automobiles.

Converting coal into gas and liquids

Coal can be turned into gases and liquids, which can be used as fuels or processed into chemicals to make other products. These gases or liquids are sometimes called synthetic fuels or synfuels. Synthetic fuels are made by heating coal in large vessels. These fuels produce fewer air pollutants when burned than burning coal directly.

In North Dakota, the Great Plains Synfuels Plant converts coal into synthetic natural gas. Syngas produced from coal can also be used to produce electricity and hydrogen. There are currently no commercially operating facilities in the United States that produce liquids from coal, but coal has been converted to liquids in South Africa for decades.