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Study: Coal Plants Do More Harm Than Good

RP Siegel | Monday June 18th, 2012 | 2 Comments

Turning the world we have today into a truly sustainable one could be as simple as making things cost what they truly cost. Unfortunately, that appears to be much easier said than done.

More proof of this came in last week with a report on the health impacts of burning coal. A report from the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) evaluated the health impacts of the 18 dirtiest coal plants, from the standpoint of sulfur dioxide emissions, and found that the cost of health care required as the result of the pollution exceeded the cost of electricity produced by the plants. The plants are located in 13 states in the South and Midwest. None of the plants studied have any publicly announced plans to add equipment to reduce air pollution.

Overall, the report found between 2,700 and 5,700 deaths per year attributable to pollution from the 51 dirtiest American coal plants. This translates into a cost somewhere between $23 and $47 billion. The problem is, of course, that this money does not show up on the companies’ balance sheets, at least not at the present time.

The pollution comes, at no extra charge,  in the form of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and sulfur dioxide (SO2), both of which contribute to acid rain as well as fine particles, commonly known as soot, which is known to cause asthma, lung cancer, heart disease and premature death. While equipment, known as scrubbers has been widely available, with the capability to bring these plants into compliance with the Clean Air Act, which was passed forty years ago, the Act itself has been under continuous attack by Republicans in both Houses of Congress. This uncertainty over whether or not the rules would be rolled back has surely led to delays in compliance and as a result, hundreds of additional deaths.

According to Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project, there were four steps in the analysis:

  1. Determine the emissions from each plant
  2. Estimate the number of premature deaths from those emissions
  3. Estimate the social costs of those deaths
  4. Compare those social costs to the retail value of the power being sold

The analysis selected the most polluting plants from an SO2 perspective, focusing specifically on those plants with a long-term history of high emissions. The authors eliminated some of the worst plants from the study, if they had plans to implement pollution controls in the near future.

Once, the target plants were identified, the list was passed along to Dr. Jonathan Levy, professor of Environmental Health, Boston University School of Public Health. Dr. Levy put the emissions data into a simplified atmospheric model to estimate the range of small particle emissions in the surrounding areas. These small particles are known to travel hundreds of miles. Once the distribution of particles was calculated, these data were then linked with population data from the census. That gave a representation of how many people were exposed to various levels of pollution. These results were then subjected to analyses generated by two major health studies, which tied the levels of exposure to the levels of premature mortality.

Finally, the number of cases of premature mortality was then subjected to a social cost analysis, which used cost factors developed by the EPA, that look at the incremental economic value of reduced risk. This then led to the dollar amounts shown above. The fact that there are two numbers given reflects the estimates generated by the two different health studies.

So, in a nutshell, what the study shows, is that these highly polluting coal plants, literally do more harm than good.

Coincidentally, the EPA just proposed new, stricter rules on small particles emissions, claiming that the higher standard will save lives. You can expect these to be challenged by the usual suspects who place profits over people.

Frankly, I don’t see any reason why America’s utilities should be burning coal at all at this point. If these health costs were added to the tab, coal would no longer be the low cost alternative it has wrongfully been all these years. And if the enormous carbon footprint and the horrendous environmental impact that coal mining has on the areas it is extracted from were added to the tab, coal might actually be the most expensive energy source of all. These plants should be phased out as soon as it is economically feasible. Especially now that America has a new fossil fuel sweetheart, natural gas, which, by the way is also wreaking environmental havoc, and will also continue to melt the polar ice caps, albeit a bit more slowly. I don’t know why I’m not seeing any proposals for natural gas plants utilizing carbon capture and storage, to turn it from a low carbon to a no-carbon option.

[Image Credit: Rainforest Action Network: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • http://stapletoncoloradohomes.com/ Wayne

    the shift has already started with the extraction of natural gas as a by product from oil extraction coal burning electrical plants are transforming from burnng coal to natural gas.With the cost of natural gas at close to 2.00 per metric ton and every available cavity filled in the us. there will be no turning back to burning coal except in china,india and thrid world countries.

  • TedKidd

    Turning the world we have today into a truly sustainable one could be as simple as making things cost what they truly cost.”