5 Ways to Teach Environmental Impacts of Coal Power Plants

Job Brisby Eloja

Fossil fuels like coal are valuable energy sources, and we have been using them for more than a century and a half. Fossil fuels provide about 80% of the world’s energy needs, with coal being a major source of electricity for many countries. Despite its utility, coal has one huge drawback: greenhouse gas emissions. Fossil fuels emit staggering amounts of carbon dioxide, a major contributor to climate change. Thus, it is important for students to understand the environmental impacts of coal power plants.

Environmental Impact of Coal Power Plants Virtual Lab

Image source: Labster's Environmental Impact of Coal Power Plants virtual lab.

This topic is of utmost importance for students looking to pursue degrees in environmental science. But students learning about environmental impacts for the first time might find the lessons intimidating. Thankfully, there are many ways to make it more engaging and approachable. Read on to find out how.

What Makes Environmental Impacts of Coal Power Plants a Challenging Topic?

First of all, let’s take a look at why students find it challenging to learn about environmental impacts of coal power plants. Here are the top three reasons experienced by both students and teachers.

1. The environment is a complex system

When talking about “the environment”, it is not just a single element. The environment is composed of many interacting and interdependent elements – from the sun to the soil. Coal power plants mainly affect the atmosphere by producing more carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. However, the impact is not only the atmosphere, but the rest of the environment as well. The complex interplay of environmental elements makes this topic difficult to appreciate.

2. There are lots of factors to consider

While environmental scientists have developed mathematical models to measure environmental impact, these tend to be difficult to measure. For instance, in a coal power plant, a lot of things need to be considered aside from total CO2 emissions, such as:

  • Amount of ash and particulate matter emitted into the air

  • Number of hours the plant is online and offline

  • Impact of cooling water on surrounding aquatic life

  • Thermal pollution

  • Amount of NO2, SO2, and other gases emitted

Calculating a so-called environmental impact score (EIS) for even a single coal-fired power plant takes a lot of effort.

3. Environmental impact is hard to quantify

Taking measurements of the factors listed above is not an easy task. Some factors, such as the impact of cooling water on surrounding aquatic life, may take an entire team of researchers to measure. Overall, a holistic assessment of environmental impact is a huge challenge to undertake, especially for students who have no exposure in this field.

5 Ways to Make Environmental Impacts of Coal Power Plants a More Approachable Topic

Based on the difficulties students have when studying environmental impacts of coal power plants, here are five tips for educators to make the topic more interesting. Each piece of advice addresses a particular challenge that students face. 

1. Talk about the importance of saving the environment

The environmental impacts of coal power plants can seem out of reach for many students. But if you talk about how the environment is important, students will start to open up to this topic. Here are a few points to consider.

First of all, CO2 is a huge contributor to climate change. According to measurements made by NASA, the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere has increased by 50% in less than 200 years. All of this added carbon dioxide results from human activity – part of it being coal-fired power plants. With that much carbon dioxide already present, Earth’s temperature gets warmer. As coal power plants continue operating, they add more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further heating up the planet.

If the Earth warms up by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, it can spell disaster for the planet. According to studies presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a global temperature increase of 1.5ºC is the maximum “safe zone” to prevent catastrophic weather events like superstorms, coastal flooding, and the like. 

Because of the threats posed by climate change, governments around the world have agreed to lower their greenhouse gas emissions by significant amounts. One huge thing that can be done is drastically lowering the use of fossil fuels like coal for electricity generation.

If students can appreciate these points, they will sooner realize the importance of knowing the environmental impacts of coal power plants.

2. Use graphics as teaching materials

Students will benefit from illustrations, diagrams, graphics, and images. Environmental impact assessments can be a little less concrete, so it would help if students are guided by visual representations of concepts related to this topic. 

Videos also prove useful in teaching the environmental impacts of coal power plants. Environmental processes are often gradual, taking months to years before noticeable effects appear. When students see these accelerated processes in videos, they can appreciate the topic more.

Interactive simulations are even better. They let students perform environmental experiments in a computer-generated environment, but the experience is as if they’re doing the real thing. If they make mistakes, there is no risk to themselves or others. Once they master the technique in the virtual world, they will be more confident as they perform experiments in the field. The image below is from Labster’s simulation entitled Environmental Impact of Coal Power Plants.

3. Reinforce fundamental concepts

Students must first grasp fundamental ideas to understand the environmental impacts of coal power plants. Here are some of the basics that students need for this topic.

Greenhouse gases

The greenhouse gases are responsible for increasing the temperature of the Earth. These greenhouse gases have the ability to absorb infrared radiation from the Earth. As a result, this energy is released by the gas molecules in all directions, which keeps the Earth warm. The three main greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane.

Effects of climate change on coastal communities

Communities built around the coast are susceptible to small gradual changes such as land erosion and unpredictable sea-level changes. However, the effects of global warming on the climate are causing rising sea levels that make them even more susceptible to flooding, severe erosion, and salt-water intrusion. These can adversely affect the livelihood of the community living in such coastal areas.

Algal blooms

Algal blooms can form as a result of nutrient pollution in fish farming. They are harmful to aquatic ecosystems because they can reduce the ability of fish and other aquatic life to source food. This means that they will either leave or die due to the lack of food. Algal blooms create dead zones, which are areas that cannot support aquatic life because of a lack of oxygen. Algal blooms also block sunlight, crippling the photosynthetic organisms living under the water's surface.

Global warming vs. climate change

Global warming can often be confused with climate change, when in fact they both are referring to different things. Global warming refers to the long-term warming of the Earth caused by the increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change, on the other hand, is caused by global warming but refers to the consequences of this change in global temperature.

4. Walk students through the processes of measuring environmental impact

Students who have not experienced the methods used in ecology and environmental science may find this topic daunting. For this reason, it’s important to use firsthand experience to build students’ confidence.

Once students get the hang of the basic techniques, actual field work to assess the environmental impacts of coal power plants will become easier. They will be familiar with routine methods already.

If actual field exercises cannot be done, video demos and interactive simulations prove useful. Simulations like those found in Labster can help students have the necessary skills they need before embarking on actual lab work. 

5. Use virtual lab simulations

Virtual lab simulations are excellent tools for teaching control of microbial growth. Labster is determined to deliver fully interactive advanced laboratory simulations that make use of gamification elements like storytelling and scoring systems while exposing students to an immersive, realistic, 3D environment.

Check out this simulation called Environmental Impact of Coal Power Plants at Labster. This virtual lab allows students to perform decontamination and antibiotic selection in a safe, computer-generated environment. With this, students will gain the confidence to eventually perform the procedure on their own in an actual lab. 

The image below is an example of what students can explore in the simulation.


Please take a moment to check out Labster’s Virtual Lab, Environmental Impact of Coal Power Plants or get in touch to find out how to start using virtual labs with your students.

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