The TRUE cost of Coal

Smog, Mountain-top removal, coal ash ponds

I'm not the biggest fan of producing electricity from coal, yet it makes up almost 50% of our nation's electricity mix.  My dislike for coal has more to do with mountain-top coal removal, coal ash ponds, and dirty air, and less to do with CO2 emissions.  I'll leave the climate change debate to the scientists and politicians and focus on what isn't debatable: coal is the dirtiest of all energy sources.  I'm also not a fan of carbon capture and storage, the solution coal believers rely on to "clean it up", because I believe it is throwing good money after bad.  In fact, one of my first analysis posts on this blog was a comparison of investing in carbon capture and storage vs. investing in renewable energy.  It doesn't make sense to me to spend money cleaning up electricity from coal when we can just produce it using cleaner methods in the first place!

Because of all of these reasons, I was happy to see that a new Harvard study just released examines the true costs of coal to society. It takes into account the externalities associated with producing electricity from coal.  Externalities are the effects that society and the environment end up paying for that aren't reflected by the actual market price of a product.  Pollution is an externality of coal, because it isn't accounted for in the initial cost, but society ends up paying for it through increased health costs and less enjoyment from the environment.

From the Harvard study:

“The public is unfairly paying for the impacts of coal use,” says Dr. Paul Epstein, the lead author of the report and associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School,

“Accounting for these ‘hidden costs’ doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh, making wind, solar, and other renewable very economically competitive. Policymakers need to evaluate current energy options with these types of impacts in mind. Our reliance on fossil fuels is proving costly for society, negatively impacting our wallets and our quality of life.”

So what can you do to help reduce the consumption of coal power?

  1. You can reduce your electricity consumption.  Check out our free Energy Guide or just read some of our categories under Conservation
  2. Produce your own clean energy to reduce the energy you use from your utility.
  3. Call your Senator or Congress person and tell them you want to see programs like PACE Financing succeed and you want to put an end to mountain top coal removal.
  4. When in discussions with your friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, etc., explain to them that while America does have plenty of coal, the externalities not accounted for in price of coal generated electricity are damaging to society.  Explain to them that their children breathe dirtier air because of our reliance on fossil fuels and we need to start doing everything we can to limit their consumption.

I live less than a mile from a coal power plant.  Luckily, this plant is being converted to a natural gas powered plant.  While natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and still pollutes, it is much cleaner than coal (and doesn't require a coal ash pond or the removal of mountains...although fracking is still an issue).  One of the reasons the utility chose to do this is to clean up air emissions (the plant is just outside Atlanta city limits) because of public pressure.  Make changes in your thoughts, discussions, and actions. You can make a difference!

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