The hidden costs of coal
Coal is one of the cheapest energy sources in the world, if you ignore the environmental costs and other externalities.
This story was originally covered by PRI's Living on Earth. For more, listen to the audio above.
Nearly half of the electricity in the United States comes from coal. That's because it's the cheapest fuel available. But if you add up all the costs of coal, not just the dollars and cents paid by consumers, coal starts looking a lot more expensive.
"What we pay for coal makes it seem like it's cheap," Dr. Paul Epstein, Associate Director of the Center for Health and Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, told PRI's Living on Earth, "but the cost to taxpayers -- to the general public in terms of health and environmental impacts -- are enormous."
The costs of coal not directly factored into the price, the so-called externalities, add up to somewhere between a third and a half a trillion dollars per year, according to Epstein. If the external costs were taken into consideration, Epstein estimates that it would "would double or even quadruple the cost of coal that we would pay in cents per kilowatt-hour."
Epstein's calculations try to take the whole life cycle of the coal into consideration. That includes mining -- both mountaintop and underground -- transport to the processing plants, and transport in railways to the coal combustion plants. Epstein says that "seventy percent of our railway traffic is coal in this nation."
The calculations also take public health costs into consideration. In Appalachia alone, the public health burden adds up to about 75 billion dollars per year, according to Epstein's calculations. This is the impact of air and water pollution, primarily, on people's health.
Coal also creates a lot of pollution when it's used. Epstein says, "this is the one that gets most attention." According to his calculations, "$887.5 billion is our best estimate, per year, that's attributable to air pollution."
Some say that coal creates jobs in places like Appalachia, but that's not true in Epstein's research. He found that as the levels of coal mining increase in Appalachia, so do the poverty rates and unemployment rates in the area. The dominant form of mining right now is mountaintop removal, which employs very few, mostly highly skilled, people. He says, "in West Virginia, for instance, it's less than one percent of the population that is employed in coal today."
When the health, social and environmental costs of coal are taken into consideration, Epstein says that the energy source becomes a lot less attractive. He told Living on Earth: "Coal becomes very expensive if we look at these external costs, and it makes wind and solar and smart-grid highly competitive."
Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More about "Living on Earth."