The Costs Of Coal & Other Fossils That Dumb, Uninformed, & Biased People Don’t Acknowledge

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If you ever take a logical look at electricity production or the burning of fossil fuels to propel vehicles forward, you see that most of the cost is not paid when purchase that electricity or fuel. Most of the cost comes from the tremendous health problems the resulting air pollution (and climate change, if you are brave enough to include that) creates. As an example, here’s a nice chart the EPA has created showing the cost of the Clean Power Plan (on the right) versus the benefits (primarily health and life benefits):

health costs of pollution

You almost don’t even notice the bar for the $8.4 billion on the right because of how big the bar on the left is. This shouldn’t be new to anyone, but I’ll give you a pass if you’ve been uninformed up till now but can now see the light (with the smog clearing away).

If you can look at this information, or plenty of articles and studies on the matter (see here, here, here, here, here, and here) and not acknowledge that it makes more sense to clean up our electricity generation system than keep on keepin’ on, then you’re either dumb or biased. Sorry, there’s no way around that. And if you’re so biased (whether that is because you work in the coal industry, have family who work in the industry, or are simply tied to one particularly evil group of politicians and sub-culture) that you care more about maintaining business as usual than saving people’s lives and reducing suffering, then you need to see a psychiatrist.

I actually ran across the above chart on the Tesla Motors Club forum, and the person who shared it there made this insightful comment: “I noticed this graphic and was interested as I have often thought the same things about Tesla and EVs in general. That is, that the benefits to the health budget should offset quite large concessions to move to electric vehicles.” Indeed, here’s another chart from the EPA showing where US CO2 emissions come from:

US CO2 emissions

CO2 emissions aren’t what cause asthma, lung cancer, heart attacks, etc., but a look at health-harming pollution would look similar to the chart above. Transportation would be a huge chunk of the pie. Burning gasoline and diesel kills. It not only kills, but it kills in insidious, torturous ways. It also decreases the quality of the lives we live. And even if we get lucky and don’t end up with lung cancer, asthma, the premature death of a baby, or something else with a comparable label, we still have to live through the nasty smells of this stuff.

No matter how you cut the pie, a shift to renewable energy and electric vehicles makes financial sense. They also make sense for anyone wanting to live in a nicer world.

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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34 thoughts on “The Costs Of Coal & Other Fossils That Dumb, Uninformed, & Biased People Don’t Acknowledge

  • I have to say I agree in principle, but I’m skeptical of some of the costs of air pollution. I have asthma, my son has asthma, his mom and grandpa have asthma. I have worken in clean tech startups. So im not a coal hack. But why has asthma increased as the air got cleaner? The air is so much better than it used to be in California. It doesn’t make sense.

    • Delayed effects? The lead thing has a very long lag on adult crime.
      Also, the focus has shifted from smog – driven by sulphur particles, and visible – to fine particles from diesel exhausts, which are invisible. Rio de Janeiro doesn’t have smog, and the Olympic skies wil be blue, but it’s still heavily polluted (see WHO country data.)

      • Has pb and crime been proven? The graphs on lead and crime in USA look very compelling and there’s a plausible (but unquatifyable) causal mechanism. Seems persuasive until you look at crime outside of us where lead also phased out like east Asia. When you do that it seems like a coincidence.

        • Don’t know. This reference is pretty strong about it. See what you think.

          “This study investigates the association between air-lead levels and crime rates across 2,772 U.S. counties. Data for the analysis come from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Census, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Results suggest that air-lead levels have a direct effect on property and violent crime rates even after adjusting for general levels of air pollution and several structural covariates of crime. We also find that resource deprivation interacts with air-lead levels. The association between air-lead levels and crime rates-property and violent-is strongest in counties that have high levels of resource deprivation and weakest in counties that have low levels of deprivation. This interaction is consistent with arguments and evidence in the health care literature that populations most at risk of lead poisoning are least likely to get the resources required to prevent, screen, and treat the illness.”

          • The correlation is with breathed ozone concentration, not lead. The ozone irritates chemosensitive structures behind the nose, leading to increased criminal behavior, increased ADHD, borderline personality disorder, increased sexual perversions (pedophilia, homosexuality, etc.), and increased drug addiction.
            Happily, there is a remedy, supplying increased pheromone to even damaged receptors does reverse thrill-seeking: criminal, sexual, and chemical. 1/4th gram of healthy adult male facial skin surface lipid by mouth usually fixes any behavioral sociopathy. So 0% crime, 0% perversions, and 0% chemical dependence are all within reach, and it will not take long, either. With a little help, it’s achievable in 3 months.
            Still, if we didn’t have all the gas burning and oil burning, our health as a nation would vastly improve.

        • The lead-crime is proven. It’s a more solid set of correlations than *anything* I’ve ever seen in the social sciences, and yes, the correlations work in East Asia too. See the website of Rick Nevin if you want to look at a lot of it.

          It has an 18-22 year lag time between lead exposure and crime rates. It’s worth understanding this, because it makes it a little hard to do the correlations.

    • Smog might be better in California than it was at its worst, but its far from gone. We have spare the air days and smog alerts frequently. None of those is good for people with asthma and the alert warns asthmatics and old people to stay indoors.

      As good as it is, its poor. Residents of San Joaquin Valley have twice the rate of asthma.

      “The residents of the San Joaquin Valley have asthma at twice the rate of people in other parts of the state, the university said. Despite considerable improvement in California’s notoriously troublesome air, the San Joaquin Valley recently missed a federal deadline for cleaning up its winter air of sooty particulates, a development blamed on warm, dry conditions and stagnant air.

      Last summer, California was out of compliance with federal ozone rules for 99 days in the San Joaquin Valley, up from 89 the year before. Sooty particulates, which cause brown haze in the late autumn and winter, were up throughout the state last winter.

      For December 2014 to February 2015, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which covers Los Angeles, reported 24 days that failed to meet federal pollution rules, up from 16 in 2012-2013.”

      • People who live adjacent to major sources of pollution (major roadways) will not be able enjoy the increasingly clean air – until gasoline is not burned on roadways and point sources are not located up wind from their homes.

        This is an upside benefit of EV use. It’s well beyond the viewpoint of we have cat converters and the air is getting better, so that problem is taken care of.

    • The causal factors contributing to the development of asthma are still not well defined, and likely have a combination of factors, including air quality (including indoor air quality) and general health. For example, people who are obese are more likely to develop asthma (, more obese people around the world = higher incidence of asthma in the population.

      Also, is asthma being diagnosed more often today than it was in older generations? There is another possibility. I would suggest (having not done this myself), that if you’re truly skeptical, perhaps you should examine to the methods used to estimate the reduction in asthma attacks? Because currently your comment is pretty much based on anecdotal evidence, which isn’t without value, its just not particularly strong.

      • That has nothing to do with the asthma frequency being higher in San Joaquin Valley. We don’t need to know all the causal factors to find correlation or indeed causality. There are empirical methods, too. A factor of two is beyond random noise. And air quality in the Valley is measurable and poor. We do know studies have been done showing the illness and death rates due to pollution from coal. They are solid. I have yet to hear any peer reviewed source contradict the idea that pollution leads to greater illness and death.

        In order to discuss the subject properly, those studies must be referred to in specifics, not in generalities.

        So check out this abstract from Pubmed.

        “Air pollution exposure is associated with increased asthma and allergy morbidity and is a suspected contributor to the increasing prevalence of allergic conditions. Observational studies continue to strengthen the association between air pollution and allergic respiratory disease, whereas recent mechanistic studies have defined the prominent role of oxidative stress in the proallergic immunologic effects of particulate and gaseous pollutants. The identification of common genetic polymorphisms in key cytoprotective responses to oxidative stress has highlighted the importance of individual host susceptibility to pollutant-induced inflammation. Future therapy to reduce the adverse effects of air pollution on allergic respiratory disease will likely depend on targeting susceptible populations for treatment that reduces oxidative stress, potentially through enhancement of phase 2 enzymes or other antioxidant defenses.”

        Nothing equivocal about it.

        First sentence.

        Air pollution exposure is associated with increased asthma and allergy morbidity

        What more do you need?

        • “Air pollution is associated with increased asthma and allergy morbidity.” That’s correlation, not causation. In order to establish causality, you do need to identify a causal factors and prove it using empirical methods.

          What more do I need? Well for starters, you stated: “We do know studies have been done showing the illness and death rates due to pollution from coal. They are solid.” Ok, which is all fine and good, but you didn’t provide any links to those studies, you provided a link to some other random study not related to that topic. I’m not disagreeing with your anecdotal assertion, I just find the lack of consistency in your debate technique puzzling.

          A more wholesome examination of the factors linked to asthma can be found here:

          “Key points

          The prevalence of asthma varies widely around the world, probably because of gene-by-environment interactions.

          Prenatal risk factors for asthma may include maternal smoking, diet and nutrition, stress, use of antibiotics and delivery by cesarean section.

          Childhood risk factors for asthma may include allergic sensitization, environmental tobacco smoke, exposure to animals, breastfeeding, decreased lung function in infancy, family size and structure, socio-economic status, antibiotics and infections, and sex and gender.

          Occupational exposures constitute a common risk factor for adult asthma.”

          You’ll note that there are 5 pre-natal risk factors and 9 childhood risk factors related to the prevalence of asthma, none of which are related to industrially created air pollution.

          So I re-iterate my point, there are multiple factors related to asthma, it is not a well understood condition because there are so many different potential factors that can contribute to its development.

          The original commenter asked, “why has asthma increased as the air got cleaner?” I simply provided some additional thoughts as to why there may not be as strong a correlation between air pollution and asthma prevalence, because of other confounding factors.

          • True. The link between coal pollution and illness is pretty much accepted. Asthma is harder to pin down.

            FIrst their is correlation. Then there is the rest which is harder. This is like proving smoking causes lung cancer. That took a while.

            What the researchers seem to be saying is that asthma is complicated and there are many factors. Its hard to do controlled analysis on human subjects with so many factors.

            But we go on correlation with much less causality in other areas. And spend heavily on pharmaceuticals.


    • I’d suggest this: The micron and sub micron particulates that cause a LOT of the damage to our lungs are seldom addressed by current air pollution control technology. The air may LOOK cleaner but our lungs would disagree. Respireable particulates are not efficiently captured by electrostatic precipitators.

  • Zach: transportation is probably responsible for a greater share of the air pollution health damage. A very large share of electricity generation is natural gas, which spews CO2 by the gigatonne but very little else. And the epidemiologists point the finger at fine particles, which are disproportionately emittted by vehicles, and at ground level, just right to catch human lungs. With the coming phaseout of coal generation, transportation will become the dominant polluter.

    • Do modern non diesel gas cars have PM2.5 tailpipe emissions? I thought modern PMx was all diesel exhaust and dust from friable tires and road surfaces.

      Don’t get me wrong. I find clean tech to be very exciting.

    • Also, transport emissions are local, whereas power plants are often kept much further from the masses.

      • Yes. And the coal plants are concentrated in some areas. Pollution can be more concentrated locally.
        On the other hand, as some of the Eastern states argued, they were unfairly getting pollution driving from other states.
        If you noticed in another ref on this article I gave, the San Joaquin Valley is getting is getting pollution from China. China. Yeoow.

    • Yes. On the other hand, coal pollution may be worse than gasoline. Diesel I don’t know. Its bad, too. US still has about 39% coal electricity.

  • These health risk assessments and morbidity studies always lead to lawyers and consultants making a killing and nothing much getting done to curb or eliminate the problem. Environmental and health risk is important and done all the time for environmental projects. They’ve even been standardized through discharge limits into the atmosphere and air. However…the best and brightest tend to also get hired by those doing the polluting. So an environmental scientist and health professional are to support claims of impact by government or environmental NGOs. Then another group of brilliant professionals are hired by the polluters to disclaim the findings. One, five, ten years later maybe something happens.

    This is going on right now with oil and gas fracking. There’s data and there’s professionals doing environmental and health risk – on both sides. The ones with the best technical experts and lawyers can win or at least deflate the issue. It’s a nasty business. Sadly, oil and gas has a lot more money. US EPA is not regulating. And states are happy to take severance taxes from production. Areas around shale development are stuck in the middle.

    There is a really easy way to state the real cost of fossil fuel. That is environmental damage and the cost to remediate the damage. For coal, oil and gas the environmental damage is in the exploitation and management of the waste liquids and solids. This would be contamination to the groundwater, land and surface water. The cost is the actual cost to bring it to natural standards. For the gas phase or exhaust this is the immediate damage caused by unburned hydrocarbons, soot, NOx, SOx, CO2 to the breathing zone. This includes coal, oil and natural gas burning. And impacts to human health (acute impact and neighborhood real estate devaluing) and the environment (remediation and reclamation, i.e. forests).

    Here’s my cost estimate for fossil fuel environmental and health impacts gone unaddressed or purposely ignored: eternal damnation +/- 15%

  • I may be difficult to come up with a perfect number for the cost of pollution, but it ain’t zero, and renewables are. cheap. The right decision is obvious.

  • Here is an older, but more detailed breakdown of U.S. GHG Emissions by sector

    Keep in mind that the approach from emissions reduction is very different when talking about the Sector/IPCC Reporting Category and the End Use/Activity.

    We need a comprehensive set of solution that hits it from both sides, the generation of energy and the consumption of energy.

    Road transportation needs to be revolutionized with zero emissions vehicles… and power generation needs to be revolutionized with solar/wind with grid storage.

  • Does anyone (including the author) have the links at (or where ever) for the 2 graphics (and the backup data) in this piece? I have a bunch of stuff from PNAS, Medline, Epstien and Nordhaus on pollution costs but not really up to date numbers.

    Here in Australia, we are just about to have our second climate change election and the Murdoch-backed “coal is good for humanity” Tea Party lookalike crew currently in government are already running the scare campaigns against limiting emissions/pollution and getting more renewables into the grid. These include such crap as “wind power costs $1503/MWh (IRENA’s number for Australia is around $70-75/MWH) and “more renewables will mean higher electricity bills” and “emissions trading will push up power bills by $500/year” and “23.5% power from renewables is quite enough” etc, etc. You get the picture.
    A lot of the US economic arguments (aiming at the hip pocket nerve) in favour of renewables and energy efficiency measures are directly applicable to Australia – things like RGGI, the Clean Power Plan, etc; so this sort of data is really good ammunition to counter the coal lobby and their bought government.
    Thanks for any help.

    • You have almost to admire the fake precision of the invented $1503/MWh.

    • Where are you getting $70-$75/MWh = 7c/kWh-7.5c/kWh? This must be old information. New Wind is now below 4c/kWh=$40/MWh. Here is an article from Ronald Brakels and some comments: “Snowtown II: Wind Power At A Cut-Throat Price!” – November 2013
      Wind in Snowtown Australia at USA 4.1c/kWh.
      Nice and amusing article by Ron Brakels. mds

      1st comment from “Ron Brakels”:
      “Yes,without subidies. The windfarm will receive payments under Australia’s 20% Renewable Energy Target, but that doesn’t affect the cost of producing electricity. It does, however, make the wind farm more profitable. If Australia’s grid electricity consumption wasn’t declining we’d see a lot more wind farms being built.”

      1st comment from “Bob Wallace”:
      “The average sales price of wind electricity in the US for 2011 and 2012 was $40/MWh, 4c/kWh.”
      “Wind gets a 2.3 PTC (or 30% ITC) for the first ten years of production. So a bit over 1c/kWh over a typical 20 year PPA. That number includes more than what is in the typically used LCOE. It also includes real estate costs, transmission, taxes and owner profits. Adding those in and taking the PTC out means that the LCOE of wind is roughly 4c/kWh in the US.”

      2nd comment from “Ron Brakels”:
      “What rate can power companies borrow money at in the US? If it is 3% then a wind farm identical to Snowtown II would produce electrity for about 3.2 US cents or less a kilowatt-hour in America. Of course, the US mid-west may not blow as much as South Australia does.”

      • More information with good graph showing how low wind cost can go now: – September 2014
        “New Cost Analysis Shows Unsubsidized Renewables Increasingly Rival Fossil Fuels”
        “Levelized costs don’t tell the whole story about competitiveness. But they provide a helpful guide for where clean energy is headed.”
        “ ‘Over the last five years, wind and solar PV have become increasingly cost-competitive with conventional generation technologies, on an unsubsidized basis,’ concludes Lazard.”

        Wind is now the lowest cost from of new energy generation available to the grid. There are very good wind resources in Australia, because your continent is old, worn down, flat. The very low cost of wind is the precise reason Tony Abbott is attacking wind energy. It’s a threat to his coal burning buddies. Hang’em high in 2016!

      • Thanks for the info, Mike.
        Does the SA grid operator publish generation numbers and hour to hour sell prices? (Imagine the west coast of Tasmania as a wind generation hub!)

        My info is from IRENA’s Renewable Energy Capacity Statistics 2015. They get the info from those regional operators who are IRENA members (not all are) and then average it out by onshore or offshore wind supply per country. So its an Australian average, and given the steep hardware cost reductions, slightly out of date.

        You are on the money about about Abbott and his fossil fuel generator mates wanting to smash onshore wind. It really does bugger up their business plan and it plays havoc with the latest 85 billion cost for 50% renewables spruik.

        I like LACE estimates but avoided cost figures are harder to get.

        Good report from NREL recently about US wind farm capacity factors. They now rate the Central Plains farms as having 35% CF (about the same as most Australian east coast coal burners) which will drive the LCOE down to 3c/KWh and match gas for dispatch response – ie: make it baseload.

        • Very welcome, of course.

          “Does the SA grid operator publish generation numbers and hour to hour sell prices?”

          Sorry, I don’t know the answer to this.

          Be carefully of averages. “liars, damn liars, and statisticians”

          If the liberals in Oz are preventing new onshore wind being built …and you then use an average cost of existing wind on the grid, then you are essentially looking at old wind costs.

          This is the same for the 35% CF number. Significant progress has been made in recent years on designing wind turbines to better exploit available wind resources. 40% and in some cases even 50% capacity factors (CF) are being seen now. This includes at least one wind farm I’ve read about in Australia. Also, wind turbines can now be installed to produce power in areas with average wind speeds that were too low for earlier. This is one of a number of improvements that is helping to drive the cost of Wind generated electricity down.

          The opposition here in the US frequently uses “averaged” cost numbers to misrepresent what Solar PV can now do. Watch out for those sneaky beggars.

          Here is another good article for you, if you’ve missed:
 – March 2015
          “Wind Energy Was Largest Source Of New US Electricity In 2014”
          “Iowa led the country,
          acquiring 28.% of its electricity from wind power”

          Turns out the wind is always blowing somewhere in the midwest of the US, so yes, it seems to work very well as baseload power. I suspect this is the same in Australia.

          Wind is great for city power in Australia, but your grid is far flung and expensive to maintain …and you have very good solar resources. I think with the advent of very cheap storage will make Solar PV accessible 24/7 for economically winning off-grid electricity for many in Australia. Abbott’s stupid policies, and the same from Oz utilities, are ironically helping to create this.

  • Good point. Thanks.

  • Bravo Zachary! WELL SAID!

  • Zach: I appreciate this article but what I am seeing in the transition to solar in particular, is this. If in fact solar rooftop is currently .6% of residential energy production in the US and the monopolies have mounted the attack they have using the argument of shifting costs to those without the roof tops available; the issue that needs to come to the fore front is this.
    When is the average consumer going to see the possible 60% reduction in their monthly power bill.
    I believe it’s APS that is projecting the utilities will allow a 20% savings pretty much pushing ROI time frames into the stratosphere for the average “stupid” consumer.
    It’s amazing what the current financial interests are doing to ensure the common residential energy consumer will never be able to invest in himself.
    Keep that money flowing to the 1%!

  • Easy does it, you’re preaching to the choir here. Ignorance is no sin and confronting ignorance with a politically oriented approach just puts people defenses up. You wanna win people over or simply pump up the righteous emotions on your own team? Cheerleading is not a mechanism for disseminating information it’s a tool for solidifying hardening support for your own team. If your right if your position is demonstratively true you don’t need to up the hyperbole just keep reiterating facts.

    Some very smart people don’t agree with you and they don’t agree with you because of bias and the way those biases weight the information they have available. You want moderate ideological opponents not to reject what your saying outta hand. Fostering an attitude that everyone that disagrees with your position is an inept idiot is simply not the best way to advance a cause.

    • 1. Ignorance IS a sin, particularly when it is self-inflicted by blind bias.
      2. It doesn’t matter how you approach the argument for some of these individuals with blinding biases. The only thing that is going to change their view is: (a) realization of benefit (financially) to their own selves (i.e. savings on power costs), (b) a big enough ground swell in the views of others.
      3. You certainly have a point. In some situations it is an important one, …but …sometimes it’s a good thing to just tell it like it is. …imho

  • You know what would be a great post? what are the top few companies tackling each of these causes of CO2 emissions.
    We all know about Tesla, Solarcity, etc.
    But what about companies doing electric heating?

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