Report looks at hidden health costs of energy production

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 19, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- Generating electricity by burning coal is responsible for about half of an estimated $120 billion in yearly costs from early deaths and health damages to thousands of Americans from the use of fossil fuels, a federal advisory group said Monday.

A one-year study by the National Research Council looked at many costs of energy production and the use of fossil fuels that aren't reflected in the price of energy. The $120 billion sum was the cost to human health from U.S. electricity production, transportation and heating in 2005, the latest year with full data.

The report also looks at other hidden costs from climate change, hazardous air pollutants such as mercury, harm to ecosystems and risks to national security, but it doesn't put a dollar value on them.

"We would characterize our estimate as an underestimate," because it didn't include those other costs, said Jared Cohon, the president of Carnegie Mellon University and the chairman of the committee that produced the report.

The report says it's impossible to put a monetary amount on all the hidden costs of energy, in some cases because of a lack of information but also because the study had limited time and resources. It focused on the costs of air pollution on health.

Coal-fired power and motor-vehicle transportation accounted for roughly 99 percent of those costs. The other approximately 1 percent of the estimate was from heating for homes, buildings and industrial purposes, mostly from natural gas.

Electricity production accounted for $63 billion of the damages that weren't related to climate change. Coal-fired plants, which produce about half of the nation's electricity, accounted for $62 billion and natural gas, which produces 20 percent, produced less than $1 billion of the damages.

The report looks at the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions from 406 coal-fired plants in the lower 48 states, which produce 95 percent of the nation's coal-generated electricity. There were wide differences among plants in the amount of pollution each produced. The estimated health damages ranged from less than half a cent per kilowatt hour to more than 12 cents. The average was 3.2 cents per kilowatt hour.

The best use of the information is to compare it on a plant-by-plant basis with the cost of installing and running scrubbers to reduce the pollution, said Maureen Cropper, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland and the vice chairman of the 19-member report committee.

"There are plants that are very clean out there, and the cost of further controls would not be worth the benefits and you wouldn't want to do anything," she said. However, there are also dirtier plants where the health benefits would outweigh the cost of pollution controls.

The report says nuclear energy produces low damages under normal conditions but that the nuclear waste issue needs more study before any estimate can be made. Wind and solar also produce low damages, but more study will be needed as they expand, it says. For example, if solar becomes a large energy source, future studies should look at the pollution damages from manufacturing, recycling and disposing of solar equipment.

The panel looked at transportation by motor vehicles, which make up 75 percent of transportation energy use, but it didn't monetize the pollution damages from air, rail or water transportation. It estimated the pollution damages from motor-vehicle transportation at $56 billion in 2005.

The dollar amounts were mainly early deaths due to pollution, with the value of each life put at $6 million, consistent with other studies. More than 90 percent of the costs were the statistical cost of early deaths. Other costs in studies the panel examined included chronic bronchitis and asthma, Cropper said.

Total early deaths were about 18,000 to 19,000 per year, said another member of the panel, Daniel Greenbaum, the president of the Health Effects Institute in Boston, a nonprofit organization that researches the effects of air pollution on health.

The report notes that there can be large uncertainties in its estimates. The panel of scientists, engineers, economists, and law and policy experts based its findings on presentations by experts, peer-reviewed scientific literature, and federal reports and databases.

On climate change, the panel found a wide range of estimates, from $1 to $100 per ton of greenhouse gases. Cohon said the range was large because the amounts depended on two variables: the relationship one assumes between increased temperature from climate change and the damages that will result; and the "discount rate," or the rate used to put future damages in present values.

The National Research Council of the National Academies is the federal government's top adviser on science and technology. The National Academies are made up of prominent scholars engaged in research in science, medicine and engineering.

ON THE WEB

"Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use," the National Research Council report

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