Each stage in the life cycle of coal—extraction, transport, processing, and combustion—generates a waste stream and carries multiple hazards for health and the environment. These costs are external to the coal industry and are thus often considered “externalities.” We estimate that the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually. Many of these so-called externalities are, moreover, cumulative. Accounting for the damages conservatively doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh generated, making wind, solar, and other forms of nonfossil fuel power generation, along with investments in efficiency and electricity conservation methods, economically competitive. We focus on Appalachia, though coal is mined in other regions of the United States and is burned throughout the world.
Our comprehensive review finds that the best estimate for the total economically quantifiable costs, based on a conservative weighting of many of the study findings, amount to some $345.3 billion, adding close to 17.8¢/kWh of electricity generated from coal. The low estimate is $175 billion, or over 9¢/kWh, while the true monetizable costs could be as much as the upper bounds of $523.3 billion, adding close to 26.89¢/kWh. These and the more difficult to quantify externalities are borne by the general public.
Still these figures do not represent the full societal and environmental burden of coal. In quantifying the damages, we have omitted the impacts of toxic chemicals and heavy metals on ecological systems and diverse plants and animals; some ill-health endpoints (morbidity) aside from mortality related to air pollutants released through coal combustion that are still not captured; the direct risks and hazards posed by sludge, slurry, and CCW impoundments; the full contributions of nitrogen deposition to eutrophication of fresh and coastal sea water; the prolonged impacts of acid rain and acid mine drainage; many of the long-term impacts on the physical and mental health of those living in coal-field regions and nearby MTR sites; some of the health impacts and climate forcing due to increased tropospheric ozone formation; and the full assessment of impacts due to an increasingly unstable climate.
The true ecological and health costs of coal are thus far greater than the numbers suggest. Accounting for the many external costs over the life cycle for coal-derived electricity conservatively doubles to triples the price of coal per kWh of electricity generated.
Natural gas costs about 9.3 cents per kwh including pollution costs but not including CO2. Including CO2 it is about 13 cents per kwh assuming that is safely captured and stored.
This study presents a framework to include environmental externalities into a system of national accounts. The paper estimates the air pollution damages for each industry in the United States. An integrated-assessment model quantifies the marginal damages of air pollution emissions for the US which are multiplied times the quantity of emissions by industry to compute gross damages. Solid waste combustion, sewage treatment, stone quarrying, marinas, and oil and coal-fired power plants have air pollution damages larger than their value added. The largest industrial contributor to external costs is coal-fired electric generation, whose damages range from 0.8 to 5.6 times value added.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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