The Hidden Cost of Coal Power

Since 2008, 16 new coal plants came on line, and 16 more are under construction, according to an analysis by the Associated Press (AP). Over 30 new coal plants were either under construction or constructed since 2008, and will generate an estimated total of 17,900 megawatts (MW), enough to power 15.6 million homes, about the amount of homes in California and Arizona. The coal plants will also generate about 125 million tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions a year, equivalent to adding 22 million more vehicles on the road.

Severin Borenstein, director of the Energy Institute at the University of California-Berkeley said that constructing a coal plant “is betting that we are not going to put a serious financial cost on emitting carbon dioxide.”

A National Research Council (NRC) study for Congress released last spring found that the health damages alone caused by coal generated electricity cost 3.2 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). In 2005, the health damages caused by coal power cost $120 billion. Considering that coal costs about 4.5 cents per kWh, when the costs of health damages are added in, coal power really costs about eight cents per kWh. Wind costs about five cents per kWh, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

West Virginia is a coal mining state. An analysis released in June by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy found that coal costs West Virginia $97.5 in 2009, with a net benefit of $193.2 million. The analysis declared that the importance of coal in West Virginia is “not likely to grow in the future based on the declining competitiveness of West Virginia coal resulting from the depletion of the lowest cost coal reserves.”

The analysis lists the following reasons why coal’s importance is likely to diminish:

  • the Clean Air Interstate Rule being implemented
  • climate legislation, tighter restrictions on mercury emissions
  • regulations on coal combustion wastes
  • pending restrictions on valley fills from surface mining

Consider the Clean Air Transport rule for a moment. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), through the proposed rule, would limit the interstate transport of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions. It would include 31 eastern states and the District of Columbia. The EPA plans to implement the rule on January 1, 2012. According to the EPA, the rule would save over $120 to $290 billion in yearly health and welfare benefits in 2014, and would prevent 14,000 to 36,000 premature deaths. The annual cost of implementing the rule is $2.8 billion. In other words, implementing the rule will save more money than it will cost.

Phasing out coal

The federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) provides power for nine million people in seven southeastern states, the majority of which are coal-rich. The TVA announced this week it is idling nine of its coal plants that generate a total of 1,000 MW in order to reduce its carbon emissions. One of the plants may be re-powered with biomass.

TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore said, “Replacing some coal with other, cleaner fuel sources allows a reduction in air emissions including carbon. One of TVA’s key goals is to improve air quality.”

The U.S. can learn something from its northern neighbor. Canada announced plans to phase out coal plants in June. A total of two-thirds of Canada’s 51 coal plants will be retired by 2014. New regulations for coal plants will be implemented by the end of 2011. Coal plants account for 13 percent of Canada’s total GHG emissions. The planned phase-out will reduce GHG emissions by about 15 million tons, equivalent to taking 3.2 million vehicles off the road.

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by

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