Researchers from Michigan Technological University (MTU) recently published a study, “Potential Lives Saved by Replacing Coal with Solar Photovoltaic Electricity Production in the U.S.” According to the study, ditching coal in favor of solar power would save nearly 52,000 lives in the United States each year. The deaths arise from such medical conditions as asthma, lung cancer, other pulmonary diseases, heart attacks, congestive heart failure, and strokes.
The study also says the cost of saving these lives by investing in solar power would be about $1.1 million each. Nevertheless, the study says, “These results found that for most estimations of the value, saving a life by offsetting coal with PV actually saved money as well, in some cases several million dollars per life. It is concluded that it is profitable to save lives in the U.S. with the substitution of coal-fired electricity with solar power and that the conversion is a substantial health and environmental benefit.”
In other words, by any standards, it is much less expensive to ditch the coal and save the lives.
The MTU study says external costs of use of coal for generating electricity amount to 27¢/kWh, which, added to the levelized cost of electricity provided by Lazard, would make burning coal the most expensive form of power we have, by far, at 33¢/kWh to 41.3¢/kWh.
By contrast, according a CleanTechnica article, the cost of solar-plus-storage in a recent Tucson Electric Company agreement came to only 4.8¢/kWh. Including incentives at 2.1¢/kWh, this comes to 6.9¢/kWh.
So, the question is, should we use coal, at over 33¢/kWh, or switch to solar-plus-storage, at under 7¢/kWh, saving lives and human suffering in the process? More simplistically, even if coal was free and the only costs were the 27¢/kWh of externalities, why would we still use it? Donald? Are you awake?
Of course, there is a cost to ditching coal the study may not have taken into account. Workers in power plants that burn coal are spread all over the country and can fairly easily be helped to find new jobs. But, by contrast, coal miners are concentrated in rather small areas of the country, and the disruption to their lives would possibly mean that they would have to go beyond merely finding new jobs and would need to find new places to live, disrupting community ties and stressing their families.
I would like to offer a solution to this problem.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, we have about 51,000 coal mining jobs in the U.S. This is a number that is actually only slightly smaller than the number of people killed each year by the material those miners produce.
It is not the miners’ fault that each coal-mining job represents another person killed each year. In fact, the miners are people who have, rather courageously, gone into the pits and shafts, exposing themselves to dangers both of accident and job-caused disease, to supply the rest of us with the electrical power we use. Furthermore, they have, of late, been under constant threat of losing their jobs.
According to an article that appeared in the New York Times in 2011, under the George W. Bush administration, the EPA used a value of $6.8 million on human life, while the FDA set the value at $5 million. We could choose the lower figure here.
Since the number of people killed each year by coal is approximately equal to the number of miners who produce the coal, why not just let the miners go, giving them each the value of one year’s savings of human lives? That would mean that each miner gets $5 million. We could put the money into annuity accounts that would pay, say, 2%, so the miners would get $100,000 per year each to stop working and enjoy their home community, families, good health, and knowing that they have been appreciated by their fellow Americans.
Of course, the current administration might not approve of this idea. Trump has promised to create coal jobs. But he could change his mind and decide that human lives are more important than his promises. After all, his promises never had any value in the past. Besides, I rather think the miners would forgive him.