With all the rumblings about the “War on Coal,” production of it in Illinois has actually been steadily increasing over the last decade, nearly doubling since 2003.
Coal production rose from 31.1 million tons to 57.9 million tons in that span, according the Illinois Coal Association website. That’s still below the 1970 production total of 64.9 million tons, however.
A Southern Illinois University-Carbondale professor said the best way to maintain those increases is to find uses for coal other than electricity generation.
“We have to change the way coal is being used,” said Tomasz Wiltowski, of the Advanced Coal and Energy Research Center at SIU-C. “As it stands now, coal is being used for one product — electricity. This needs to be changed.”
Coal is a raw material used in everything from liquid transportation fuel to over-the-counter pain relievers, Wiltowski said.
In South Africa, he noted, most transportation fuel is derived from coal.
Companies that own coal-fired power plants are already phasing out its use. In May, Dynegy announced plans to shut down one unit at its Newton power plant and two units at its Baldwin power plant south of Belleville. The company said the units were failing to recover their basic operating costs.
Coal has a long history in the world in which we live.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, coal has been used for heating since the Stone Age. Hopis in what is now the southwest United States used the black substance for heating, cooking and baking their pottery.
In the 18th century, the British found that coal burned cleaner and hotter than wood charcoal. Meanwhile, commercial coal production was beginning in Virginia.
By the 1880s, coal was being used to generate electricity for homes and factories. Coal-fired power plants such as the Central Illinois Public Service plant in Newton were numerous. But that started to change after the Clean Air Act was amended in 1990 with tighter controls on the use of the sulfur-rich coal found in states such as Illinois, Kentucky and West Virginia.
While coal production nationwide has actually more than doubled since 1949, according to the US Energy Information Administration, the growth almost exclusively results from the discovery of low-sulfur sub-bituminous coal in the western United States. As a result of development efforts in that state, Wyoming is by far the largest coal-producing state, with about 396 million short tons produced in 2014.
Effingham County has never been known as a hotbed of coal production. But local historian Jerry Eident — in his book “Grandpa Gibson’s Letters” — said about 20,000 tons of coal was mined during the last quarter of the 19th century.
Quoting from a 1937 edition of the old Mason News, Eident said a Mr. Nelson opened an incline mine around 1875 on land he owned in West Township. After mining for about 10 years, Nelson sold the mine to Croft Greider, who had three sons of working age.
While Croft Greider did the large amount of blacksmith work needed to operate a mine during that time, young William Greider ran the mine with help from his younger brothers H.D. and E.V. Greider.
Eident said his research showed that the mine yielded more than 20,000 tons of coal in 20 years, with deliveries made to Farina, Altamont, St. Elmo, Mason and Edgewood, as well as rural areas between those communities. The historian added that Croft Greider closed the mine after William expressed a desire to move to California.
Eident said William returned to Effingham County after eight years in California, later serving as Mason’s mayor before his death in 1943. Younger brother E.V. moved to California and stayed, while H.D. became a prosperous restauranteur in Decatur. An Edward V. Greider died in Santa Cruz in 1939, but it is not known whether that Greider is the former Mason Township resident.
The 1915 Springfield city directory shows that a H.D. Greider of Decatur owned Greider’s Cafe in downtown Springfield. The Feb. 26. 1921, edition of American Contractor magazine shows H.D. Greider paying $12,000 to have a house built in Decatur.
With concern about greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, Wiltowski says the future for coal will be much brighter if coal producers look away from traditional markets such as power companies.
“We have to start utilizing coal to produce something other than electricity,” he said.
Wiltowski says political considerations make it hard to predict the future of coal production. But, he added, the statistics indicating increased production are a bit misleading.
“Coal is on life-support,” he said. “But I am quite optimistic that by applying new technologies, coal will be used in a different way”
Some of the research being done at the Coal and Energy Research Center in Carbondale includes a process to effectively convert bituminous coal to methane gas, as well as work to chemically sequester carbon dioxide for products such as hydrocarbons and alcohols.
Witkowski said researchers and enterpreneurs alike need to step out of their respective comfort zones to make wide use of this new technology a reality.
“Without taking risks, we can’t make any progress,” he said.
Bill Grimes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-347-7151, x132.