Intelligent Energy

The real cost of coal power

The real cost of coal power

Posting in Cancer

Think coal electricity is cheap? A study by Harvard University scientists finds that burning coal leads to an extra $345 billion in hidden costs each year.

Coal power is cheap, on the electric bill. The price of coal mining and combustion gets steeper, however, when it hits our environment, community and bodies. How much steeper? Harvard University researchers say somewhere between $175 billion and $523 billion each year.

That's a big differential, but their best guess falls at the $345 billion mark. The study, to be published by the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, finds that coal's collateral costs—cancer, mercury pollution, lost mountaintops—would raise the fossil fuel's price per kilowatt hour by 18 cents.

The New York Times reported yesterday:

Even the study’s most conservative estimate of the uncounted cost of coal — $175 billion a year — would more than double the average cost of coal-fired electricity, the 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.

As of November 2010, the DOE listed the average price of electricity per kilowatt hour at 10 cents. That is with coal generating almost half of the nation's energy last year. Wind and solar power provided less than 5 percent of our energy in 2010 and did so more expensively, at least monetarily speaking. But as these relatively new industries grow, they might eventually produce power at more affordable rates. According to the DOE, wind power generation rose 46.3 percent last year.

The response to the study from the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, reports Reuters, is that it didn't consider how lower energy prices contribute to higher standards of living, and thus better health.

Hmm, I guess it all evens out then? The money I save on electricity will help me pay for the problems my electricity creates? Makes me wonder what the final price tag of climate change will be. Eh, I'm sure it will cover it...

Author Paul Epstein of the Center for Health and the Global Environment:

This is not borne by the coal industry, this is borne by us, in our taxes. 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.

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Image: Flickr/meloncholy optimist

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure