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Published on July 28th, 2012 | by Zachary Shahan


What If…

July 28th, 2012 by  

I’ve had this one on my list for a long time. Finally got around to making the video (text and images with credits below it):

What if…

  • the way we produced electricity… caused cancer?

Woman cancer patient via Shutterstock

Cancer medical scan via Shutterstock

What if…

  • the way we produced electricity… caused asthma?

Coal miner via AveLardo/flickr

Child with asthma via Shutterstock

Pennsylvania coal mine via wallyg/flickr

What if…

  • the way we produced electricity… killed millions of people?

Graveyard via Shutterstock

Coal smokestack via Shutterstock

What if…

  • the true price of electricity was over 5 times what we pay on our electric bill?

What if we had solutions?…

What if…

  • we could produce truly cheap electricity from the wind…

Wind turbines on farm via Shutterstock

  • and the sun?

What if…

  • we priced electricity right?

Solar panel installation via Shutterstock

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About the Author

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession and Solar Love. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, and Canada. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in. But he offers no professional investment advice and would rather not be responsible for you losing money, so don't jump to conclusions.

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  • dynamo.joe

    I don’t have an issue with you saying that coal kills and causes health problems, we all know thats true.  But if you are going to complain that the power industry glosses these issues over, you can’t gloss over the same problems in your preferred wind and solar industries.

    The mining, heavy manufacturing, and semi-conductor industries that go into producing solar/wind power and the maintenance activities required by solar/wind all have deaths and devestating environmental impact associated with them (e.g. I live just a few miles from a Vestas plant where they have killed or maimed a few people a year ever since they opened).

    If you compared they true cost of renewables to the true cost of conventional power sources, instead of just saying ‘coal is bad’, you would seem less like a renewable energy pollyanna and more like someone trying to determine our best way forward. 

    It would make your arguement more persuasive outside of this forum.  And let’s face facts, the renewable 1%’ers that inhabit this forum don’t need any convincing.

    • Bob_Wallace

      The costs of wind and solar are included in their LCOE.  Coal, on the other hand, creates a health-damaging set of costs that we pay through taxes and health insurance premiums.

      I think you would have a difficult time coming up with health costs produced by wind and solar.

      As for manufacturing accidents, you think they are appreciably different from manufacturing coal mining equipment, trucks, railroad cars, and coal plants?

      • dynamo.joe

        No, that was my point, they aren’t different.  So if you want to include them in the coal/oil production they should also be included in solar.

        I don’t have the numbers, but lets say that 100 people per year die as a result of mining/manufacturing/maintenance activities for solar/wind  and that the number is 500,000 for coal/oil.  That’s more convincing to me than just saying it’s 500,000 for coal/oil because I don’t know the cost of your alternative.

        Obviously at that point you would point out that if you completely replaced coal/oil with solar/wind the rate would increase by 75 times, for a total of 7500 deaths annually compared to 500,000 (all numbers a complete SWAG by me).

        To me the argument is just more effective when you say ‘here, look at my dirty laundry too,’ rather than ‘ignore the man behind the curtain’.

        I’m not going to go into detail here, but health costs associated with wind/solar, in my opinion should include; ground water contamination from mining tailings, stockpiling of nuclear materials from rare earth mining activities, accidental release of chemicals and soil/groundwater contamination by the chemicals used in the manufacturing of PV.

        • Bob_Wallace

          We don’t have data on mining/manufacturing deaths for any of the electricity technologies. 

          We do have health related cost data.

          There is very little accidental release of chemicals from PV manufacturing.  That’s a pretty closed system, at least in the US.  China is cleaning up their act and should be a clean operation soon.

          My guess would be that non-pollution injury/deaths from coal would be much higher.  Not only does the plant have to be built, but all that coal has to be mined and hauled to plants.  There’s initial construction plus ongoing fuel production.  The same might hold for nuclear.

          Solar, wind and nuclear might work out about the same based on the amount of steel, concrete and other stuff used.  

          If you want to chase things far into the weeds, there are a lot more miles driven per kWh for nuclear as all the required plant workers travel to and from work.  More pollution, more CO2, more traffic accidents.

          But the big issue here is that we are paying an incredible amount for coal-electricity with our taxes and health insurance premiums.  Let’s not let ourselves get distracted from that by a bright shiny object tossed on the path….

    • This video is not meant to get into details. No short video is. We look at these matters closely, and I’ve never seen that they compare to the health problems associated with fossil fuels. Yep, improvements can always be made. But renewable energy is like a water gun compared to a rifle. No comparison.

      That said, yes, let’s make it even cleaner!

      I’m very surprised to hear about deaths and maimings near your house. Could you provide more info and links. I’m sure they happen, but they’re very rare, and to say there were several just near your house seems odd.

  • ThomasGerke

    Nice Concept 🙂 Those are truely the important questions.

    We were all born into this world full of pollution and people are conditioned to accept those human & economic costs that are being dumped on society. 

    People and especially the so called “experts” have adopted the paradigm of the energy corporations that profit from the fossil / nuclear energy system. They believe that it’s cheap because it’s being told to them over and over again. 

  • rkt9

    Nice video Zach, there are many hidden costs to coal.  For me the most alarming is the copious amounts of mercury being dumped into our environment.  Also, two trips to China, has shown me the devastation it takes on the respiratory systems of people. 

    Here is a link to another of the hidden costs of coal.


    A train wreck in Suburban Glenview IL demolishes a bridge, fortunately no one was hurt, but traffic will be disrupted for a long time to come.  Trains derailments carrying coal, LPG are more common than one thinks. Wind and solar don’t need to be constantly fed with toxic substances that lie buried beneath the surface of our earth. 

    Okay, so the video isn’t going to win any awards, perhaps those who have critiqued it, can take it as a foundation and build upon it, and let us see their abilities!  I congratulate you on the time and effort you put into eveything you do!  Cleantechnica inspires me, and helps to keep my mind focused on a clean sustainable future! 

    • great points! and thanks a ton. 😀

      i knew i was putting myself out there with this. making a (good) video isn’t easy, and this is one of my first. but i think such videos are critical, and want to get into this more. i actually thought this one was pretty good 😛 but will keep working to improve them. and will be making diff types.

      we’ve got so many key points that need expressed in video format, i think. 😀

  • Edward Kerr

    As a person lay dying of cancer caused by burning coal in such large quantities I’m sure that they will be comforted by knowing that it only cost the rest of us 27cents a kWh….

    • right, 27c is supposedly quantifying the health costs (and best study i’ve seen on it) — but how do you quantify death?

  • jr

    What about the ocean: wave, tidal and OTEC?

    • yes, that too, but it won’t be as big a part of the puzzle, imho. and, more importantly (given the msg in the video), it’s not ready for prime time yet — wind and solar are.

  • Anonymous

    No offense as I genuinely enjoy reading what you write, but your voice is really ill-suited for making videos like that and the video itself is just not very good.

    I’d be willing to help out on the former.

    • Bob_Wallace

      I don’t think Zach would turn down offers to help make the video the best it can be.

      It’s an important message, IMO, and he has made a good start. I’ve already suggested to him, off site, that it might be better to make the cost message more prevalent. “Coal bad, renewables good” comes across but I’m not sure most people will walk away with the financial cost firmly planted in their heads.

    • Captivation

      I didn’t find it bad at all, but its important to remember that aMorgan Freeman voice-over takes years of training and big bucks.

      • Thanks. 😀

        almost dropped this in the comment above (great video/presentation, and the bit on making pots is quite relevant here, i think): http://sivers.org/failure

        • Captivation

           Zachary, thank you so much for that link.  It came at an ideal time (like so many things in this world.)
          Thanks again.

          • Awesome! 😀

            He’s got a ton of good stuff, but especially love that one. 😀

        • Captivation


          A related video that haunts me.  In our youth we all knew someone like this speaker.  In my world today I know not one.  We all talk about species extinction but never personality extinction.  But what if certain personalities were more prone to getting crushed by the world?

        • Captivation

          Sorry, one more vid to complete the haunting.
          Observe the audience clip at 13:23.  You don’t get looks like that unless you are affecting people deeply.  And yet, note the many negative comments about her.  I think these sort of verify my earlier extinction observation.  Its not easy to be this person.


          • Thanks a lot. Have to watch these tomorrow, but look great!

    • Hey, thanks for the note. Definitely not a pro from day 1. But i have interest! 😀

      There are some serious process issues i need to get resolved.

      Will email you when i’m ready to work on the next one. Thanks!

  • stuart

    ocean energy increasing resource as oceans warm. Number of significant demonstration and pre-commercial units will be deployed in next 2 years.  Oceans can make a big and growing contribution, its time to start some measured promotion and education of opportunity.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Wind turbines were being installed in number 30 years ago.  Lots of years to refine the technology.  We’re just now installing tidal turbines that seem to be working and we don’t seem to have any wave technology that is “exciting”.

      Lots of potential, but it’s early in the game to get into large scale installation.

      • jr

        In the relatively short time wave energy has been in the developmental stage, it has already matched, and in some cases surpassed wind in its  LCOE (levelized cost of energy).  Not sure what your prerequisites for “exciting” are.

        • Ross

          Got some links to back that up? I’d love that to be true coming from a country parked off the North Atlantic. 

          The EIA Annual Energy Projection out to 2035 only mentions wave once and it is lumped in with biomass, waste, tidal and ocean power. To be fair all of those taken together are forecast to grow even more rapidly than solar but less than wind.http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/pdf/0383(2012).pdf

        • Bob_Wallace

          I’d also like to see that data.  So far all I’ve seen is that some wave tech is being tested, I’ve seen nothing on performance superior to the LCOE of wind.

          Great if it’s true.  Please share.

      • rkt9

        I’m all in favor of any type of clean energy, but having lived near salt water for many years, I know there are many problems to be solved.  An unprotected boat hull gets covered with barnacles in a short time, and salt water increases the rate of electrolysis of metals. 

        A lot of poisonous copper is put in anti-fouling paints to keep boat and ship hulls clean, and a lot of zinc is disintegrated each year to reduce the effects of electrolysis. 

        • Bob_Wallace

          It’s going to be interesting to see how these problems are solved.  Turbine blades will likely need cleaning from time to time, will they use divers or develop non-human cleaners?

          If the engineers can keep stray power under control electrolysis should not be an issue.

  • wattleberry

    Yes, this is no less than the 2nd industrial revolution for which the original has prepared us but has had its day.

    • Ross

      I’d agree we are experiencing a revolution. Even 10 years from now how many naysayers will there be? I’m optimistic there’ll be bipartisan support for the revolution at the national level in the US and in most other carbon intensive countries before the decade is out.  

      I think it is part of a broader sustainability revolution that is required to continue to increase living standards while limiting the environmental impact.

      • wattleberry

         And of course there was plenty of resistance to the first one, only then those bemoaning the demise of the horse were called neighsayers.

        • Captivation

          And in the snowy regions they were called the sleighneighers.

          • Ross


        • lol

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