The true price of coal

February 19th, 2011
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Why do we burn so much coal for power generation? Supposedly because it’s cheap. However, the true price of coal is far, far more than what it’s bought and sold for per tonne. The real cost to the USA’s economy through the human health and environmental damage it wreaks has been calculated – and it is mind-boggling.
 
Greenpeace recently hosted a preview of a soon to be published study by Dr. Paul Epstein, Director of Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment. 
 
The study looks beyond the already very thorny issues such as subsidies and examines human health and environmental impacts of coal throughout its entire life cycle; based on peer-reviewed studies already published.
 
The result: the impact of coal in the USA costs a third to over half a trillion dollars annually. Not billion, trillion. Each year.
 
Breaking that down, based on the 500 billion dollar mark, that amounts to a debt of $1,515 per man, woman and child in the USA, every year in relation to the impacts fossil fuel has on the nation’s bottom line.
 
This figure is based on damages due to climate change; public health damages from nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, mercury and other toxins and emissions; accidents during coal transport; the public health cost in regions such as Appalachia in relation to coal mining; government subsidies and lost value of the land around abandoned mines.
 
That incredible financial impact makes clean, renewable electricity generating technologies like solar power seem a heck of a lot cheaper – and just the subsidies component of fossil fuels is one of the reasons why solar energy isn’t cheaper than what it is today. 
 
If the subsidies that had gone into fossil fuel had been redirected to renewables years ago – after all, the oil and coal companies have been doing quite well for themselves for decades – solar would be far more affordable. Even so, it does show the strength and potential of solar power given that it has come so far already in the face of such competition from fossil fuel.
 
As mentioned in my post in regard to President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union speech, perhaps fossil fuels may finally be approaching a final stop on the coal black gravy train ride, as the President wants to divert a big chunk of subsidy cash from coal to clean energy.
 
However, while that “clean energy” includes solar power, President Obama said it also includes “clean coal“. There is no such thing. Clean coal technologies require more energy, therefore more coal, to be mined and burned. Carbon sequestration is still unproven. Filters and scrubbers don’t get rid of mercury emissions. Toxic fly ash will be produced in even greater quantities.
 
Back to the study – the true cost of coal is so great that the study found it conservatively doubles to triples the price of electricity from the filthy fossil fuel per kilowatt hour generated. This real cost makes renewables such as wind energy and solar power along with energy efficiency and electricity conservation, economically competitive *right now*.
 
It’s often argued that fossil fuels are a major employer and so many jobs will be lost if subsidies were cut back and removed. They don’t have to be lost as such, they will just change and people in those industries will need support to re-skill (an industry in itself). 

It’s not a case of killing off fossil fuels and replacing them with nothing; it’s about replacing it with greener technologies – and with those will come an abundance of green jobs. Like the computer revolution that created similar unfounded fears, the real clean energy revolution can provide employment for many.

Let’s start hammering a few more nails in fossil fuel’s coffin very soon – aside from saving money, the environment that sustains us depends on it.


Michael Bloch
Green Living Tips.com
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