The Damage Done, Part 3 — Is Coal Really So Bad for the Environment?

Coal plantThe world is producing and consuming about 8 billion tons of coal every year, generating more than 150 quintillion Btus (British thermal units) (Source: International Energy Administration, IEA). According to the green-energy narrative, the use of coal for generating electricity is destroying the land, polluting the natural world, raising world temperatures to dangerous levels, and spilling toxic fly ash into the environment. (Photo: Coal power plant. Credit: Wayne Silver, CC BY 2.0.)

The story goes that we must wean ourselves off of coal power generation and replace it with sustainable green and clean sources like hydro, solar, and wind power — before we destroy the world.

But how do we know for sure that coal is so bad? How do we know that building and operating wind and solar farms won’t do just as much damage as fossil-fuel business-as-usual?

The brilliant minds here at ThomasNet Green & Clean have decided to undertake a series of articles trying to answer these questions. Each week, we’re studying the environmental impacts of a different energy source, whether green or conventional. We’re going to attempt an apples-to-apples comparison to try to understand whether “green” is really any greener.

In this third article of the series, I will be examining the environmental effects of coal power. To learn about economic concepts and environmental measures we will be using for this series, please see my first two articles:

The Damage Done, Part 1 — Is Green Energy Really Better for the Environment?” and

The Damage Done, Part 2 — How Do You Measure the Environmental Effects of Energy?

Does Coal Really Make Us Sick and Kill Us?

One of the most important areas for measuring environmental impacts of energy production is its effects on human health and mortality.

Researchers have developed methods for measuring damages to people’s health and reduction in their lifespans, expressing those damages in dollar values. One important measure is called the value of a statistical life (VSL); this is sometimes calculated by determining how much money people would want to get paid to avoid a certain bad effect, such as exposure to a greater risk of cancer; sometimes it is calculated by studying how much people will pay for increased safety; sometimes VSL takes into account a person’s potential lifetime earnings.

I know, placing a monetary value on human life at first seems crass. But it allows policy-makers to quantify the potential benefits and costs of policy decisions. And as a practical matter, governments and businesses need some way to decide how far they will go to preserve a human life. Is a million dollars too much to spend? Probably not. But would it be feasible to spend a billion dollars to prevent a death? Somebody has to consider the question, and the VSL metric is one aid to making those kinds of tough decisions.

Studies of the value of a statistical life seem to have placed the monetary value of a human life at anywhere from $1 million to $10 million. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses a VSL of $9.1 million. (This article in the Cato Institute’s Regulation magazine outlines some of the methods of calculating VSL and some of the issues and controversies around this practice.)

In studying the environmental effects of coal energy, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report “Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use” calculates the damages caused by four air pollutants: sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), fine particulates (PM2.5), and coarse particulates (PM10). NAS uses a value of a statistical life of $6 million in its study.

NAS studied 406 coal power plants in the U.S. and found that damage from emissions of the four pollutants studied averaged $156 million per plant, ranging from $8.7 million to $575 million for the various plants studied. The most damaging 10 percent of plants caused 43 percent of aggregate damages. The following chart outlines some key figures about the damage done by the four pollutants considered in the study:

Pollutant Mean Damages per Ton of Emissions (2007 $US) Mean Damages per Kilowatt Hour (2007 $US)


$.038 (3.8 cents)



$.0034 (.34 cents)



$.0030 (.30 cents)



$.00017 (.017 cents)

All told, the NAS report estimates aggregate damages from the four pollutants across all the coal plants at $62 billion (2007 $US), or 3.2 cents per kWh. The damages per kWh among the various plants varied from .5 cent to 13 cents.

Paul R. Epstein and colleagues, in an article for the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (“Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal,” 2011), writes that in 2005 coal generated 7.334 trillion kWh of electric power. If we use the NAS figure of 3.2 cents per kilowatt hour to monetize the human damages from coal of the four pollutants studied, the worldwide impact on human health and mortality (and some other minor impacts mentioned in the report) comes to about $245 billion in environmental impacts for one year.

Electrical generation from coal also results in emissions of heavy metals, whether into the atmosphere or by means of coal ash (or coal combustion wastes). According to the NAS study, these heavy metals include antimony (Sb), arsenic (As), beryllium (Be), cadmium (Cd), chromium (Cr), cobalt (Co), copper (Cu), lead (Pb), manganese (Mn), mercury (Hg), molybdenum (Mo), nickel (Ni), selenium (Se), silver (Ag), thallium (Tl), vanadium (V), and zinc (Zn)

According to a report by Environment America (“America’s Biggest Mercury Polluters,” November 2011), coal plants in the U.S. emitted in 2010 over 66,000 pounds of mercury pollution into the air. Proposed new EPA standards would prevent annually 17,000 premature deaths, 11,000 heart attacks, 12,000 emergency department visits and hospital admissions, 120,000 cases of asthma symptoms in children, and 850,000 workdays missed due to illness.

Coal as an Engine of Climate Change

All technologies used to produce and distribute energy involve at least some level of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission during their lifecycles. In the case of coal, the source has to be extracted, transported, and burned to produce energy. All of these activities emit GHGs at some level. (Illustration: Lifecycle CO2 emissions for electricity generation. Source: Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Contains Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Parliament License v1.0.)

Lifecycle CO2 emissions for energy sources

Carbon dioxide (CO2, a.k.a., “carbon”) is not the only GHG. Water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone are also considered GHGs. But for measuring GHG emissions, the standard method is to wrap all emissions into a single “carbon footprint,” expressed as grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt hour of power generation, abbreviated by the lovely designation “gCO2eq/kWh.” (Sometimes the “eq” is shortened to “e.”) For an explanation of carbon-footprint calculations, see the U.K. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology’s report, “Carbon Footprint of Electricity Generation.”

A study published in Energy Policy by Benjamin K. Sovacool of the Vermont Law School, previously at the National University of Singapore, found that the estimated lifecycle carbon footprint for coal is 960 CO2 equivalents with scrubbing, and 1050 equivalents without scrubbing. (A scrubber is a device that absorbs CO2 from exhaust gases.)

Is coal’s 960-1050 CO2 equivalents a lot? Well, yes, when compared with other energy sources. Here’s how some of the key sources stack up, according to Sovacool’s research:

Source/Technology Lifecycle CO2 Equivalents (gCO2eq/kWh)
Coal 960-1050
Natural gas 443
Nuclear 66
Solar Photovoltaic (PV) 32
Wind 9

As you can see from the “World energy-related carbon dioxide” chart shown below, out of the chief fuel types, coal accounts for the greatest proportion of CO2 emissions. The other “Coal share of world energy consumption” chart shows that the world relies heavily on coal for electricity production and will likely continue to do so for decades. (Credit: U.S. Energy Information Administration)

CO2 emissions by fuel type

Credit: EIA

Coal's share of energy consumption

Credit: EIA

The National Academy of Sciences “Hidden Costs” report  says that the U.S. relies on coal for nearly half of its electricity production and about one-third of its total energy needs.

Other Effects of Coal Power

Coal power creates externalities in other areas that are certainly of concern but that are harder to quantify.

A study by Charles J. Cicchetti for a group of non-profit organizations (“Expensive Neighbors: The Hidden Cost of Harmful Pollution to Downwind Employers and Businesses”), argues that a coal plant in one location can have negative effects on businesses and the economy in areas downwind. Cicchetti claims that every dollar invested in pollution controls for sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) “avoids $50-100 dollars in downwind costs annually” — costs such as lost work days, increased labor expense, and higher health insurance costs.

Many observers have called attention to potential problems with coal ash, or the by-products of coal consumption. The American Coal Ash Association (ACAA) says that U.S. coal plants produce per year about 125 million tons of coal ash, about 45 percent of which gets reused for such purposes as concrete manufacturing and structural fill. While the association claims that these by-products present little environmental risk, others disagree. For some insight into this question, see Tracey Schelmetic’s article, “House of Representatives Puts Fly Ash into EPA’s Ointment.” Be sure to read the comments posted with the article, as some of them come from a representative of the ACAA.

The mining and burning of coal has effects on plant and animal life, on habitats and ecosystems. It might be possible to make some estimates of the services ecosystems provide to humanity and the economic effects of ecosystem destruction. But an economist would be hard put to quantify the true value of the earth’s living systems and the damage that human activity can cause.

Coal’s Externalities: Who’s Gonna Pick Up the $1.3 Trillion Check?

Epstein, in his article for the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (“Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal,” 2011), concludes that the best estimate for all of the externalities of coal should be 17.84 U.S. cents per kWh. This includes monetization for emissions, carcinogens, fatalities, health problems, and GHG climate damage, among other things.

World electricity generation by source through 2035

Using the 7.334 trillion kWh per year figure for electricity generated by coal worldwide, as I used previously, the total cost burden for coal’s externalities would come to $1.3 trillion per year. And according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, electricity produced by coal is expected to rise to 12.9 trillion kWh by 2035. So the bill is only going to go up, along with the environmental damage.

See this space next week for our discussion of the environmental effects of natural gas electrical generation. And, as always, feel free to use the comment space below to express your wisdom, ponderings, musings, or crazed tirade.


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  • Alex White
    December 20, 2011

    Natural gas should replace coal ASAP. Issues about fracking should be solved with appropriate regulations. Of course burning natural gas is much better than burning coal. I suspect the coal lobby is just trying to deter the inevitable switch to natural gas. Because of shale gas long-term contracts for natural gas are available.

    There is another reality about renewables, primarily solar and wind, they cannot replace coal and natural gas generated electricity by any great amount. They are simply expensive supplements.

    I’m following this guy in Austin, TX – Andrew West who has some technology to burn natural gas even cleaner (no NOX and 80% less CO2). It’s an old technology called oxy-fuel where the natural gas is blended with pure oxygen. In the past it wasn’t adopted because the oxygen was too expensive. He claims to make it affordable enough to produce electricity that’s less than coal-generated electricity.

    If I understand his math correctly, we can retrofit all coal and natural gas power plants (and many industrial boilers) economically, meaning the utilities could pay for it without an increase in the cost of electricity. The result would be the elimination of NOX and SOX and an 80% reduction of CO2. Solar and wind advocates can’t make those claims. Despite spending $1 trillion in the last 10 years, solar and wind installations didn’t even keep up with new demand. That means we made NO progress on reducing CO2 emissions.

    Too much of the energy conversation seems to be “fossil fuels versus renewables” and we’re missing the chance to make significant progress by simply cleaning up the burning of natural gas with oxygen. There’s more, he also provides affordable nitrogen to the power plants for cooling so they no longer need to damage rivers, lakes and streams.

    He has some other solutions, too. Agriculture and education included.

    It’s worth a look:

  • T.D. Clark
    December 21, 2011

    Al, great write-up and Alex, great comments. It’s true, most of the conversation is centered around “fossil vs. renewables”. I’ve certainly fanned that flame with some of the articles I’ve posted here. At the end of the day, it all comes down to economics. Cooler heads will prevail. Retrofitting fossil factories for natural gas will become the new way forward. Solar, wind, algae will continue to be deployed where it makes sense.

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