February 17, 2011

High Costs of Coal

From Reuters, a report on a new study by an associate of Harvard's Center for Health and the Global Environment:
The United States' reliance on coal to generate almost half of its electricity, costs the economy about $345 billion a year in hidden expenses not borne by miners or utilities, including health problems in mining communities and pollution around power plants, a study found.
Those costs would effectively triple the price of electricity produced by coal-fired plants, which are prevalent in part due to the their low cost of operation, the study led by a Harvard University researcher found.

"This is not borne by the coal industry, this is borne by us, in our taxes," said Paul Epstein, a Harvard Medical School instructor and the associate director of its Center for Health and the Global Environment, the study's lead author.

"The public cost is far greater than the cost of the coal itself. The impacts of this industry go way beyond just lighting our lights."

Coal-fired plants currently supply about 45 percent of the nation's electricity, according to U.S. Energy Department data. Accounting for all the ancillary costs associated with burning coal would add about 18 cents per kilowatt hour to the cost of electricity from coal-fired plants, shifting it from one of the cheapest sources of electricity to one of the most expensive. 
In the year that ended in November, the average retail price of electricity in the United States was about 10 cents per kilowatt hour, according to the Energy Department. 
Advocates of coal power have argued that it is among the cheapest of fuel sources available in the United States, allowing for lower-cost power than that provided by the developing wind and solar industries.
"The Epstein article ignores the substantial benefits of coal in maintaining lower energy prices for American families and businesses," said Lisa Camooso Miller, a spokeswoman for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry group. "Lower energy prices are linked to a higher standard of living and better health."

The estimate of hidden costs takes into account a variety of side-effects of coal production and use. Among them are the cost of treading elevated rates of cancer and other illnesses in coal-mining areas, environmental damage and lost tourism opportunities in coal regions where mountaintop removal is practiced and climate change resulting from elevated emissions of carbon dioxide from burning the coal. . . .

The $345 billion annual cost figure was the study's best estimate of the costs associated with burning coal. The study said the costs could be as low as $175 billion or as high as $523 billion.
There is more from the NYT Green blog:
“We really don’t appreciate the public health dimension of what this is costing us,” said Paul Epstein, lead author of the study and a public health expert at Harvard Medical School. “I think we’ve been sticking our heads into the sand.”
Even the study’s most conservative estimate of the uncounted cost of coal — $175 billion per year — would more than double the average cost of coal-fired electricity, its authors found. At this lower range, roughly 80 percent of the costs were from well-documented public health impacts like lung and heart disease, with the rest of the costs attributed to climate change and other environmental impacts as well as local economic effects like lost tourism in coal-mining areas. . . .
Dr. Epstein maintains that the true costs of coal are probably even higher than the study’s worst-case estimate of more than $500 billion per year. Much remains unknown about the public health dimensions of coal mining, processing and combustion, particularly the effect on groundwater, and with a lack of firm data, the study ignored a host of probable pollution-related health impacts.
“Part of the epidemic of cancer can be attributable to some of these carcinogens that we’re pouring into the groundwater from extracting fossil fuels,” he said.
The infiltration of carcinogens into the residential water supply of Appalachian communities may be particularly acute, he said, and public health studies are under way to determine the severity of the contamination.

“We see the accidents and the deaths of some of the miners. We see some of the impacts of mountaintop removal,” he said. “We don’t see the benzene and lead and mercury and arsenic — the whole slew of carcinogenic materials affecting household waters.”

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