In a tag team of sorts, a Harvard economist and Greenpeace have just taken a couple of big swings at coal.
Dr. Paul Epstein, the Director of Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment, recently completed a study with eleven other researchers examining the full cost of coal over the course of its life cycle. The study, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, the first to so comprehensively look into this matter, finds that coal is costing the United States approximately $500 billion/year in hidden costs.
Why isn't coal as cheap as it seems when we pay our electricity bill? Because it critically damages the environment, dirties our air and water, and as a result causes serious human harm.
"Each stage in the life cycle of coal—extraction, transport, processing, and combustion—generates a waste stream and carries multiple hazards for health and the environment," according to the authors. The coal industry currently doesn't pay for this. (Or, should I say, the multi-millionaires and billionaires who run the coal industry don't -- surely, the workers pay quite a bit as well as their family members and friends.)
Clean Energy Actually Economically Competitive with Coal
What is one of the key, overarching points? Clean energy, which is often claimed to be too expensive to compete with coal, is actually economically competitive when you take these important externalities into consideration. "Accounting for the damages conservatively doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh generated, making wind, solar, and other forms of non fossil fuel power generation, along with investments in efficiency and electricity conservation methods, economically competitive."
Greenpeace Activists Climb Coal Plant
I'm not sure if this was in coordination with the release of the study above or a coincidence, but Greenpeace activists reportedly scaled an old coal power plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut this morning to bring more attention to the dirty and harmful effects of coal power and to try to get this leading polluter shut down.
Hanging a 40' by 20' banner at the Bridgeport Harbor Generating Station that read, "Shut it Down - Quit Coal," the activists brought more attention to their push to shut down a coal power plant that was opened in 1968 and emits approximately one million tons of CO2 a year.
Six schools are located within one mile of this old coal plant and the children who go to school there are surely suffering from many of the health consequences detailed by Dr. Epstein in the report discussed above.
Will the report and activist effort change the course of energy policy in the U.S.? That's yet to be seen, but I imagine most coal-subsidized politicians won't change much in their objectives and opinions on this matter.
Photo Credit: Greenpeace USA 2011