Life-cycle study: Accounting for total harm from coal would add “close to 17.8¢/kWh of electricity generated”

In a groundbreaking article to be released this month in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, details the economic, health and environmental costs associated with each stage in the life cycle of coal – extraction, transportation, processing, and combustion.  These costs, between a third to over half a trillion dollars annually, are directly passed on to the public.

In terms of human health, the report estimates $74.6 billion a year in public health burdens in Appalachian communities, with a majority of the impact resulting from increased healthcare costs, injury and death. Emissions of air pollutants account for $187.5 billion, mercury impacts as high as $29.3 billion, and climate contributions from combustion between $61.7 and $205.8 billion. Heavy metal toxins and carcinogens released during processing pollute water and food sources and are linked to long-term health problems. Mining, transportation, and combustion of coal contribute to poor air quality and respiratory disease, while the risky nature of mining coal results in death and injury for workers.

That’s from a news release for the important new study, “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal.”  Dr. Epstein is the lead author, and there are 10 coauthors, public health and environment experts.

We’ve known for a long time that coal is a costly and deadly energy source.  In “The Toll from Coal,” The American Lung Association found that coal-powered electricity alone caused “over 13,000 premature deaths in 2010, as well as almost 10,000 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 heart attacks per year.”

Epstein coal2

The National Research Council found in 2009 that burning fossil fuels costs the U.S. $120 billion a year “” not counting mercury or climate impacts! That relatively narrow analysis found that “In 2005 the total annual external damages from sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter” from burning coal for power “were about $62 billion,” and averaged “about 3.2 cents for every kilowatt-hour (kwh) of energy produced.”

But we know that the harm from coal is much vaster, from global warming to local harm in Appalachia (see Science: Mountaintop “mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for losses”).

This new study attempts to quantify the full cost.  It concluded:

The electricity derived from coal is an integral part of our daily lives. However, coal carries a heavy burden. The yearly and cumulative costs stemming from the aerosolized, solid, and water pollutants associated with the mining, processing, transport, and combustion of coal affect individuals, families, communities, ecological integrity, and the global climate. The economic implications go far beyond the prices we pay for electricity.

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.

The average residential price of electricity is 12¢/kWh.

The study notes that even these numbers are certainly underestimates of the full cost of coal:

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.

The report also finds that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a far less attractive strategy than many realize:

Our analysis also suggests that the proposed measure to address one of the emissions””CO2, via CCS””is costly and carries numerous health and environmental risks, which would be multiplied if CCS were deployed on a wide scale. The combination of new technologies and the “energy penalty” will, conservatively, almost double the costs to operate the utility plants. In addition, questions about the reserves of economically recoverable coal in the United States carry implications for future investments into coal-related infrastructure.

Public policies, including the Clean Air Act and NewSourcePerformanceReview, are inplace to help control these externalities; however, the actual impacts and damages remain substantial. These costs must be accounted for in formulating public policies and for guiding private sector practices, including project financing and insurance underwriting of coal-fired plants with and without CCS.

This is consistent with other recent research:

Dr. Epstein says:

The public is unfairly paying for the impacts of coal use.  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.

Finally, the new study offers these recommendations:

  1. Comprehensive comparative analyses of life cycle costs of all electricity generation technologies and practices are needed to guide the development of future energy policies.
  2. Begin phasing out coal and phasing in cleanly powered smart grids, using place-appropriate alternative energy sources.
  3. A healthy energy future can include electric vehicles, plugged into cleanly powered smart grids; and healthy cities initiatives, including green buildings, roof-top gardens, public transport, and smart growth.
  4. Alternative industrial and farming policies are needed for coal-field regions, to support the manufacture and installation of solar, wind, small-scale hydro, and smart grid technologies. Rural electric co-ops can help in meeting consumer demands.
  5. We must end MTR mining, reclaim all MTR sites and abandoned mine lands, and ensure that local water sources are safe for consumption.
  6. Funds are needed for clean enterprises, reclamation, and water treatment.
  7. Fund-generating methods include: maintaining revenues from the workers’ compensation coal tax;
    b. increasing coal severance tax rates;
    c. increasing fees on coal haul trucks and trains;
    d. reforming the structure of credits and taxes to remove misaligned incentives;
    e. reforming federal and state subsidies to incentivize clean technology infrastructure.
  8. To transform our energy infrastructure, we must realign federal and state rules, regulations, and rewards to stimulate manufacturing of and markets for clean and efficient energy systems. Such a transformation would be beneficial for our health, for the environment, for sustained economic health, and would contribute to stabilizing the global climate.

Hear!  Hear!

16 Responses to Life-cycle study: Accounting for total harm from coal would add “close to 17.8¢/kWh of electricity generated”

  1. Colorado Bob says:

    The coal trains that haul from the Powder River Basin, if all hooked together, would be 43 miles long.

  2. Lou Grinzo says:

    Colorado Bob: Got a source for that train stat? I’d love to use it, and it sounds plausible.

    In general, I think this study merely quantifies what we already knew, if by “we” I’m allowed to mean “everyone who’s engaged on energy and climate issues”. Ripping coal out of the ground, burning it for heat in often hideously inefficient facilities, and dumping the ensuing CO2, mercury, particulate matter, etc. into the air is a stupefyingly bad idea. Sure, in the late 18th century we didn’t know any better, but in 2011?

    And as for my comment about efficiency, I strongly suggest people here check out the electricity flow diagram ( from the current Annual Energy Review fro the DOE/EIA. It shows that for generation from all fuels, the US loses 63% of the original energy content of the fuels. That’s 94% of the energy from all the fossil fuels used for electricity, and 134% of the coal energy.

  3. Colorado Bob says:

    Energy in Depth, a group representing oil and natural gas producers, has sent a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences arguing that “Gasland” should be ineligible for best documentary feature because it contains inaccuracies. While other industries have launched public relations campaigns to discredit documentaries — health insurers targeted Michael Moore’s “Sicko” in 2007, for instance, and Dole challenged a 2009 documentary called “Bananas!” — this is the first time an industry group has appealed directly to the academy.,0,7546951.story

  4. Jonah says:

    Argh, now I have to wait to read the study. Grrr… impatient!!

  5. climate undergrad says:

    It is unclear from this study if / how climate change costs were included in this analysis. Can anyone comment? Will I too have to wait for the study :)

  6. paulm says:

    Solar power cheaper than gas power in California :: The Hook

    Wind power prices drop to coal power levels: Bloomberg :: The Hook

  7. Mark says:

    I have received a copy of the full report from Greenpeace after promising not to post it until it is officially released. They’ll email a copy to you – if you request nicely.

  8. James Newberry says:

    Brilliant work by medical professionals, who understand societal health. This helps immensely against the fossil technocrats and banksters who keep harping about the benefits of burning fossil materials. Including climate, more like an unmitigated disaster.

    Now, how about a current study for atomic fission Doctor Epstein?

  9. Jim says:

    Everyone is probably aware that the coal cartel is desperately trying to get raw coal off of the North American continent to feed the China climate destroying machine. An Australian company has tried to pick on a small port – with a compliant local county commission – in Washington state. They proposed exporting and applied to export about 5 million tons per year. This week it was disclosed that internal documents reveal that this plan was just a small part of much bigger coal export expansions to come – even though the company testified to the contrary before the Commission.

    New York Times:


    Internal Documments, with highlights below, found here:

    “….expansion plans “should not be made available to any outside party.”

    “We are [at] too sensitive a juncture to raise the plans to build a second berth. The community is small and the risk to the current permit path is too large.”

    Expose Ambre Energy – and their partners in climate crime: Arch Coal.

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I hope the good Dr Epstein et al are prepared for the shit-storm that will descend on their heads. Judging by the recent posts regarding Big Business ‘dirty tactics’ in targeting the opposition and their families, I hardly think that such provocation will go unavenged. After all, the coal barons are simply doing what the pathocrats have always done since the first caveman made himself King of the Australopithocenes. They are just putting their interests, as they see them, before those of the rest of humanity. Their interests are basically in anaesthetising their inner emptiness by greedy accumulation, the theory being that the more stuff you garner, the further pushed away are the harsh realities of existence, like old age, disease, death and isolation. Each plutocrat, and each camp follower who lives by the same avaricious credo, even if a lifelong ‘loser’ with barely a half dozen maxed out credit cards and a mortgage sunk deep, deep, in negative equity to his or her name, is a little island universe of utter isolation and spiritual desolation, obsessed to the point of madness with getting the upper hand is their dealings with the rest of humanity. If only the Right could be retrained to relax, go with the flow and stop destroying everything just in order to pile up ever more useless money and meaningless possessions, they and we would all be far better off.

  11. Hugh Laue says:

    EU has been looking at this since 1991
    Technology Excluding CO2 Including CO2
    Conventional coal 5.7 – 11.7 7.5 – 13.6
    Conventional coal with SO2
    and NOx scrubbing 0.7 – 1.0 2.5 – 3.0
    IGCC coal with CO2 scrubber 0.8 – 1.0 1.1 – 1.4
    Table 1: External costs for various types of coal plants. (1995 Euro cents per kilowatt hour.)

  12. Hugh Laue says:

    #6 climate undergrad
    The ExternE site gives a full outline of the methodology employed.
    A number of publications available for download (dates 1995 to 2005).
    This is the intro;
    “Human activities like energy conversion, transport, industry, or agriculture cause substantial environmental and human health damages, which vary widely depending on where the activity takes place and on the type of the activity. The damages caused are for the most part not integrated into the pricing system. Borrowing a concept adopted from welfare economics, environmental policy calls these damage costs externalities or external costs. By societal welfare principles, policy should aim to ensure that prices reflect total costs of an activity, incorporating the cost of damages caused by employing taxes, subsidies, or other economic instruments. This internalisation of external costs is intended as a strategy to rebalance the social and environmental dimension with the purely economic one, accordingly leading to greater environmental sustainability. Doing so is a clear objective for the European Union, for example, as expressed in the Fifth and Sigth Framework Programme of the European Commission and in the Göteborg Protocol of 2001.

    To support this internalisation, socio-environmental damages must first be estimated and monetized. Over the past 20 years, there has been much progress in the analysis of environmental damage costs, particularly through the “ExternE” (External costs of Energy) European Research Network. Since 1991, the ExternE project has involved more than 50 research teams in over 20 countries. The effects of energy conversion are physically, environmentally, and socially complex and difficult to estimate, and involve very large, sometimes ultimately unresolvable, uncertainties, unpredictabilites, and differences of opinion. Despite these difficulties, ExternE has become a well-recognised source for method and results of externalities estimation.”

  13. Bob S says:

    Reply to Lou Grinzo on PRB train length. My estimate is higher that Colorodo Bob’s …see below for computations and references. My result is 39,289 miles of trains annually or 107 miles per day.

    Cheers, BobS
    PRB Coal Production 2009 (EIA) 455,503,000 tons
    Number of Cars per Unit Train
    Union Pacific Fact Book 2009 15687 tons per train
    During 2009, average train size out of the SPRB increased 1.3 132.3 cars per train
    percent to a record 15,687 tons per train. A record 132.3 cars
    per train, coupled with a record 118.6 tons per car drove this
    improvement. UP ran longer coal trains due to improved yard
    operations in North Platte and expanded train handling facilities at
    various customer locations.

    Length of a Coal Car
    Source; Federal Railway Administration Accident Report 7452 feet
    138 cars
    54 feet per car
    Computations 29,037 trains per year
    3,841,592 cars per year
    207,445,945 feet annually
    39,289 miles annually
    107.64 miles per day

  14. Carol Nohl says:

    Thanks to Dr. Epstein and the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School for putting together this comprehensive study. Also – thanks for having the guts to publish it and make an official challenge. It is time to move beyond coal and we have the resources and knowledge to do it NOW.

    I am crying tears of joy that all the work many different environmental organizations and many caring individuals have done will be looked at with a positive note with the addition of this report. Hopefully the right actions will be taken on this monumental issue before it is too late!

    Our community in Labadie, Missouri has been trying to fight against a large coal ash dump being placed in our floodplain that would jeopardize our water supply. The power generation company in the area is a monopoly and they already violate clean air and clean water regs while continuing to deny they are not in compliance. This is just one of many stories regarding the misuse of coal.