“Side Effects” of Coal Cost US More Than $340 Billion Annually

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 TrailsLike airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

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RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com

3 responses

  1. Its the same with the energy of nuclear power plants. Just one example are the costs for insurences. They would be incredible high, so there are no insurences for the case of e.g. a leakage. And there are further cost which have to be paid by the public, so the real energy prices of this source are not at the low level they are today.

  2. Two Observations:

    1: Burning coal to generate electricity produces more radioactive waste than harnessing nuclear fission.

    Strange and counter-intuitive as it may seem, until you consider the ramifications of e=mc2, burning coal produces more radioactive waste per kwh than nuclear fission. And the waste from coal plants is not regulated.

    Back in 1993, Alex Gabbard, of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, published “Coal Combustion: Nuclear Resource or Danger” in ORNL Review. Gabbard built on the work of J. P. McBride, R. E. Moore, J. P. Witherspoon, and R. E. Blanco, also of Oak Ridge, in their article, “Radiological Impact of Airborne Effluents of Coal and Nuclear Plants,” Science, Dec. 8, 1978.

    More details are on PopularLogistics, “Coal: More Radioactive Waste than Nuclear Power, http://popularlogistics.com/2010/09/coal-and-radioactive-waste/

    2: The costs of coal, in mortality and morbidity, are 5.25 times higher than the current dollar value of coal mined in West Virginia.

    According to “Mortality Rates in Appalachian Coal Mining Counties: 24 Years Behind the Nation,” by Dr. Michael Hendryx, of the Department of Community Medicine, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV , mortality is 10.21 % higher in Appalachia than elsewhere in the US, and 18.45 % higher in coal mining counties where 4 million tons or more of coal are mined…. The coal industry generates a little more than $8 billion a year in economic benefits for the Appalachian region. But, Hendryx and Ahern put the value of premature deaths attributable to the mining industry across the Appalachian coalfields at — by one of their most conservative estimates — $42 billion. See: “King Coal: Wise Monarch or Cruel and Ruthless Despot”, http://popularlogistics.com/2009/11/king-coal-wise-monarch-or-cruel-and-ruthless-despot/

  3. It’s about time we account for the cost of waste and disposal in the production and use of energy fuels. The same should be done for other manufactured goods, such as plastics, styrofoam, and other products that become environmental liabilities after their use.

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