A new study from Harvard University has found that when the entire life-cycle of coal is considered -- extraction, transport, processing, and combustion -- it poses significant public health and environment hazards. Cumulatively, the study estimates these hazards cost the American people roughly US$300 to US$500 billion dollars annually.
Entitled, "Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal," the scientific article is set to be published next month in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. The research was headed by Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. Epstein employed the help of nine other public health and environment experts to conduct the analysis.
As a result of their findings, this panel of experts, conservatively estimates that when all the "externalities" around coal-fired power are weighed, the price of production doubles and triples. This hike, they say, makes "wind, solar, and other forms of nonfossil fuel power generation, along with investments in efficiency and electricity conservation methods, economically competitive."
Beyond the technological problems of generating capacity and intermittent power production, the biggest argument over large-scale development and implementation of renewable energy sources has been price. Renewables are still considered the expensive, luxury item compared to oil, coal, and natural gas production.
However, this argument is beginning to lose weight. Bloomberg New Energy Finance recently reported that falling prices for wind turbines reduced the cost of generating wind energy in the world's best regions to $69 per megawatt-hour last year. This price was almost on par with the $67 per megawatt-hour cost for coal-fired power.
Epstein's study shines a new, more holistic light on the price debate, though. Coal is the world's number one source of electricity. According to the study, coal-fired power represented 40% of all global electricity production in 2005. The study also notes this source of power is packaged with another large partner -- carbon dioxide emissions. In 2005, coal accounted for 41% of worldwide carbon emissions. It is estimated that by 2030 the demand for coal will double.
Widely considered a source of cheap energy in the United States, the study finds that accounting for all of the ancillary costs associated with coal-fired power would add an additional 18 cents per kilowatt-hour onto American energy bills. Currently, the average price of residential electricity in the United States is 12 cents per kilowatt-hour.
The study's authors contend these findings still do not tell the full story.
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.
In response to the study, Lisa Camooso Miller, a spokeswoman for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity -- the industry's trade association -- told Reuters, "The Epstein article ignores the substantial benefits of coal in maintaining lower energy prices for American families and businesses. Lower energy prices are linked to a higher standard of living."
Epstein contends quite the opposite, stating the economic burden of the health and environmental hazards of coal-fired electricity are carried by American families. "The public cost is far greater than the cost of the coal itself. The impacts of this industry go way beyond just lighting our lights. This is not borne by the coal industry, this is borne by us, in our taxes."
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