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Clean Power cost of dirty energy

Published on April 2nd, 2012 | by Zachary Shahan


Would You Rather Pay at the Hospital (Op-Ed + 3 Studies)

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April 2nd, 2012 by Zachary Shahan
It astounds me sometimes how bad humans are at looking at the full price of something. We somehow think that the price on a product is its true price, and buying ‘cheaper’ is the logical thing to do. In the energy sector, it’s often expressed as a given that solar, wind, or other clean energy sources shouldn’t dominate the market until they are “cost competitive” or until they “hit grid parity” without subsidies (ignoring the subsidies dirty energy gets, of course). But dirty energy subsidies aside, the assumptions used to determine “cost competitiveness” and “grid parity” ignore some of the biggest costs of energy — our health costs.

It doesn’t make sense, to put it simply, but it’s how the whole sector and nearly everyone in society operates.

Serendipitously, I was just about to come and write this piece after leaving it on hold for weeks (had already opened the draft) and then ran across the following image on Facebook, spelling out how much our National Academy of Sciences projects dirty energy costs us in poor health:

And guess what, that $120 isn’t accounted for in the price of oil, gas, or coal. (There are other costs also not accounted for, but today we’ll just tackle health.)

A study led by the late Dr. Paul Epstein, recently the Director of the Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment, took more factors into account and used different assumptions to find that the health costs of coal alone add up to approximately $500 billion a year in the US.

My guess is that, aside from paying the health costs of dirty energy at the hospital or pharmacy, you also don’t want to go through the suffering associated with health problems caused by coal, oil, or natural gas.

And yet, people will go out there and say they aren’t going to pay for clean energy if it isn’t cheaper (at the register or on their bills) than dirty energy. Crazy.

Of course, some people get it, and are willing to pay more for energy that doesn’t kill them. A recent study in Germany found that Germans are willing to pay quite a bit more for clean, green energy. Surveys in various states and regions in the US have come to similar findings. But then there are all those who will say we should keep using coal (or should even use it more) because it’s cheap, and who will say they aren’t buying an electric vehicle or solar power system until the prices come down. And if there’s any talk of raising the price of gas (to help fix an unbalanced market… and produce the necessary funds for maintenance and development of our transportation infrastructure), people freak out, dirty-energy-friendly politicians say “not while I’m in office,” and there’s no chance of making that happen. There’s a similar reaction to putting regulations on coal or natural gas (which is part of the reason why coal and natural gas are still costing us hundreds of billions of dollars a year).

And even beyond those who don’t outright oppose clean energy subsidies or regulation of fossil fuels, how many of us remain without solar panels on our roofs or a clean mode of transportation in our garage?

Coming back to my general point, sometimes it just amazes me how bad we are at looking at the true cost of goods and ‘shopping’ accordingly.

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About the Author

is the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular cleantech-focused website in the world, and Planetsave, a world-leading green and science news site. He has been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and he has been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy since 2009. Aside from his work on CleanTechnica and Planetsave, he's the founder and director of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity. To connect with Zach on some of your favorite social networks, go to and click on the relevant buttons.

  • Bob_Wallace

    $120,000,000,000 / 310,000,000 = $387/person/year.

    Each of us are paying an extra $32 each month for our electricity.

    Multiply by the number of people living in your house….

    • Zachary Shahan

      Thanks for the math. And the extra cost in most areas to buy renewable from a utility instead is what, $2-3?

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