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Tina Casey headshot

Legislators Fiddle over Solyndra Bankruptcy While Coal Burns U.S. Taxpayers

By Tina Casey

A new study on the true cost of coal power to the U.S. economy should help put the recent bankruptcy of solar company Solyndra into perspective. While some legislators have used Solyndra's troubles to call for an end to all federal support for clean energy projects, the new study reveals that the public has been shouldering a far heavier burden for the coal industry. The study, "Environmental Accounting for Pollution in the United States Economy," indicates that economic cost of air pollution from coal burning power plants is more than twice the price of the electricity they produce, primarily due to increased deaths from sulfur dioxide emissions.

The Economic Costs of Coal

The study defines air pollution as a "cost of doing business" that has not been fully taken into account, and argues that "emissions should be valued by the damage they cause." Though this approach to valuing energy may seem somewhat radical, the research was conducted by respected economists at Yale University and published in the prestigious - and notably nonradical - American Economic Review. The researchers estimate that emissions from coal fired power plants cause $53 billion in damages annually, even without taking the effects of climate change into consideration.

Piling on to the Coal Industry

The Yale study is the second time this year that researchers have raised serious questions about the true cost of coal.  In January, the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences published a Harvard University study on the full life cycle of coal, which like the Yale study argued that "externalized costs" such as health should be factored into the price of coal-generated electricity. The Harvard researchers arrived at an estimate that ranged from $175 billion to $523 billion annally. If those costs were factored into the price consumers pay for coal-generated electricity, the average cost of a kilowatt hour would be almost 18 cents higher than it is now. That would make the true cost of coal is far greater than the cost of renewable energy.

Appalachia Could Tell Harvard and Yale a Thing or Two About Coal

While the coal industry promotes itself as a job creator in Appalachia, a study of the public health effects of coal from the University of West Virginia bears out the Harvard and Yale research. Published about two years ago, the study examined mortality rates and other indicators of community health and economic well being. It concluded that far from showing evidence of strength, coal mining communities in Appalachia were among the weakest in their home states, and in the country. Ironically, the advent of less labor intensive mining methods such as mountaintop removal has caused the loss of thousands of coal mining jobs in the region over the past generation while raising new public health problems for local communities.

But - But - Solyndra!

When a major federal loan guarantee goes sour and taxpayers lose a few hundred million dollars, it's right for members of Congress to ask questions. By the same token, when reliable evidence is presented that suggests public losses are mounting into a few hundred billion dollars, those same members of Congress should be asking the same questions. In other words, if the words "clean," "renewable" and "solar" are cut out of the firestorm over the Solyndra bankruptcy, all that's left is an argument that the federal government should not be in the business of picking up the tab for any form of energy.

Image Credit: Mountain of coal by Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden on flickr.com.

Twitter: @TinaMCasey

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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