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Fast Facts About

Principal Energy Uses: Electricity, Heat
Form of Energy: Chemical

Coal is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel and a huge contributor to climate change, air pollution, and land disruption. It is a combustible, rock-like hydrocarbon mined from the earth that is burned to convert chemical energy to heat. A widely-available and non-renewable resource, coal is still the second-largest source of energy in the world and the most-used fuel for electricity generation.


Energy Mix

27% of world 🌎 (#2 resource)
11% of US 🇺🇸 (#3 resource)

Electricity Generation

35% of world 🌎 (#1 resource)
22% of US 🇺🇸 (#2 resource)

Global Coal Use

Electricity: 66%
Heat: 18%
Steel making: 15%

Global Demand

Modest increase:


Largest Proven Reserves

USA 22% 🇺🇸

Largest Producer

China 51% 🇨🇳

Largest Consumer

China 55% 🇨🇳


Largest Proven Reserves

Montana 25%

Largest Producer

Wyoming 41%

Largest Consumer

Texas 8%

Global Trade

Amount Traded

of global consumption

Largest Exporters

Indonesia 31% 🇮🇩
Australia 29% 🇦🇺

Largest Importer

China 23% 🇨🇳


  • Abundant
  • Relatively low private costs (but note that high social and environmental costs are not factored into the price)
  • Easy to store
  • Sunk cost of infrastructure
  • Historical dependence of some communities on coal industry
  • Domestic availability of coal


  • Many externalities: greenhouse gas emissions, heavy metals (e.g., mercury), air pollution (e.g., SO2, NOx), water pollution, coal dust, coal ash, high water use, land subsidence
  • Health and safety of mine workers, public health impacts on local communities
  • Regulations are increasing
  • New coal plants no longer cost competitive in many major markets
  • Coal-fired power plants are inflexible, may be hard to integrate with increasing renewables
  • Legacy issues such as abandoned mines and leftover coal ash that require ongoing treatment and management

Climate Impact: High

High gradient
  • The most carbon-intensive fossil fuel energy source
  • Escaping coal bed methane is also a potent greenhouse gas

Environmental Impact: High

High gradient
  • Combustion releases air pollutants (e.g., mercury and SO2)
  • Extraction/mining and coal ash harm landscapes and water quality
  • Surface mining and mountaintop removal are particularly damaging

Updated April 2023

Before You Watch Our Lecture on

We assign videos and readings to our Stanford students as pre-work for each lecture to help contextualize the lecture content. We strongly encourage you to review the Essential readings and videos before watching our lecture on Coal. Include selections from the Optional and Useful list based on your interests and available time.


Optional and Useful

Our Lecture on

This is our Stanford University Understand Energy course lecture on coal. We strongly encourage you to watch the full lecture to understand coal as an energy system and to be able to put this complex topic into context. For a complete learning experience, we also encourage you to watch / read the Essential videos and readings we assign to our students before watching the lecture.

Diana Gragg

Presented by: Diana Gragg, PhD; Core Lecturer, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University; Explore Energy Managing Director, Precourt Institute for Energy
Recorded on: April 13, 2022   Duration: 70 minutes

Table of Contents

(Clicking on a timestamp will take you to YouTube.)
0:00 Introduction to Coal
11:36 What is the Significance of Coal?
17:09 What is Coal?
20:51 How Does the Coal Industry Work (From Mine to Use)?
42:07 What are the Environmental and Social Impacts of Coal?
1:01:31 How is the Future of Coal Changing?

Lecture slides available upon request.

Embed Code

Additional Resources About

Other Resources

  • Energy Institute Statistical Review of World Energy Coal Chapter (great resource for global coal production and consumption data)
  • National Energy Education Development (NEED) Coal

Fast Facts Sources
Energy Mix: World 2019 (“Global share of total energy supply by source, 2019” in World Energy Balances, IEA 2021). For comparison, also see “Total primary energy supply by fuel, 1971 and 2019” in World Energy Balances, IEA 2021), U.S. 2021 (“Table 1.3 Primary Energy Consumption by Source” in Monthly Energy Review, EIA 2022. For a 2020 summary, see “U.S. total energy statistics”)
Electricity Mix: World 2020 (“Share of unabated coal-fired power generation 2020” in Coal, IEA 2022),  U.S. 2021 (Table 7.2a Electricity net generation: Total (all sectors) and 10.6 Solar electricity net generation in Monthly Energy Review, EIA 2022)
Demand, estimated: World 2021 (Coal power’s sharp rebound is taking it to a new record in 2021, threatening net zero goals, IEA 2021)
Largest Reserves: U.S. 2021 Coal explained: How much coal is left, EIA 2021
Largest Producer: China 2021 Coal and Coke Production, EIA 2021)
Largest Consumer: China 2021 (Coal and Coke Consumption, EIA 2021)
Largest Reserves: Montana 2021 (Coal explained: How much coal is left, EIA 2021)
Largest Producer: Wyoming 2021 (Coal Data Browser, EIA 2021
Largest Consumer: Texas 2021 (Coal Data Browser, EIA 2021)
Total Traded: 17% of Global Consumption in 2020 (Coal 2021: Analysis and forecast to 2024) (PDF)
Largest Exporter: In 2020, Indonesia 2020 by weight: 405 Mt, followed by Australia: 372 Mt. (Coal Information: Overview, Exports, IEA 2022). However, Australia is generally the largest exporter by energy content and value of exports (Coal Information: Overview, Trade, IEA 2022).
Largest Importer: China 2020: 314 Mt (Coal 2021: Analysis and forecast to 2024) (PDF)
More details available on request.
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