A report published recently in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences by a group of Harvard scientists led by Paul R. Epstein, entitled “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal,” unearths some rather alarming truths about the “externalities” associated with the extraction, transportation, processing and combustion of coal for the production of electricity in this country. When these externalized costs, which include health, environmental and economic impacts, are factored in, this doubles or even triples the cost of coal-powered electricity, making it more expensive than solar, wind, and other alternative sources. The report calculates an estimated average cost of $345.3 billion, which equates to an additional 17.8¢/kWh that does not show up on your electric bill. (Factoring in uncertainty, the costs could range anywhere from $175 billion to as much as $523.3 billion.)
Considering that the average monthly electric bill in 2005 was for 938 kWh; that would be an additional $2004 per year added to your annual household budget.
But just because these costs do not show up on your electric bill, that doesn’t mean they don’t show up at all. Instead, they creep into your medical bills, your health insurance premiums, your grocery bill, in lost productivity, and in your state and federal tax bills. The substantial public health burden on communities in coal-mining regions, which the study computed to be some $75 billion are shared by all of us as they are reflected in federal aid paid to those individuals, resulting in less aid to our regions and higher taxes.
The biggest impact by far, $187 billion comes from the emission of air pollution from combustion. This includes impacts from CO2, methane, particulates and oxides of nitrogen, oxides of sulfur, mercury, and a wide range of carcinogenic chemicals and heavy metals and their substantial health-related impacts.
Another $64 billion is associated with climate change impact. This stems primarily from the 1.97 billion tons of CO2 and 9.3 million tons CO2-equivalent of N2O that were emitted directly from coal-fired power plants. Also included were land-disturbance in mountaintop removal mining, and methane leakage from mines. This alone contributes 3.15 ¢/kWh to the cost of electricity.
The study also looked at carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a means of reducing the amount of greenhouse gas pollution, but had the following health and environmental concerns:
- Storing compressed and liquefied CO2 underground can acidify saline aquifers and leach heavy metals into ground water.
- Acidification of ground water increases fluid-rock interactions that enhance calcite dissolution and solubility, and can lead to fractures in limestone (CaCO3) and subsequent releases of CO2 in high concentrations.
- Increased pressures may cause leaks and releases from previously drilled (often unmapped) pathways.
- Increased pressures could destabilize underground faults and lead to earthquakes.
- Large leaks and releases of concentrated CO2 are toxic to plants and animals.
- Microbial communities may be altered, with release of other gases.
In short, if we look at the Nine Planetary Boundaries that scientists have identified as the cliffs we could potentially fall off including:
- Climate change
- Biodiversity loss
- Phosphorus cycle
- Ocean acidification
- Chemical pollution
- Land system change
- Atmospheric aerosol loading
- Global freshwater use
- Nitrogen cycle
- Stratospheric ozone depletion
There is not a one of them that is not impacted adversely by our use of coal.
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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