What Coal Mining Looks Like These Days

The world depends on these men and their machines, at least until cleaner sources of energy gain more adherents.

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A crew of men gather at a mine in McDowell County, West Virginia. They have a quick meeting, say a prayer, and head down into the mountain, into the dark, where their mining machine waits to crush rock. It's controlled via an industrial interface that looks like a battle-hardened large controller for a 1980s Nintendo.

After it's ground out of the earth, the flammable rock on which the world's power system depends gets conveyed up and out, where it's sold, and then burned for electricity. Somewhere.

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This is the rare peek that we get into the life of coal miners in the documentary Hollow. The snippet we see above has no narration. We follow the workers down, silently.

This is the reality that underpins about 45 percent of our electrical grid. It's hard: physically, psychologically. It's not typing on a MacBook Air. 

And yet, burning coal is still the cheapest way to produce electricity, if you don't factor in environmental externalities. For that reason, coal is tough to beat, especially in the developing world, where the costs of not having any kind of electricity seem higher than the costs of having dirty electricity. Energy analyst Gregor MacDonald calls coal "the ignored juggernaut," and he points out that global coal consumption is up 50 percent over the last decade, the same timeframe in which green power came to the fore in the Germany, the US, and several other wealthy countries.

And those billions of tons of coal get pulled out machine by machine, person by person in mines a lot like this one.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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