Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Coal is Just Bad, Bad, Bad

Merrimack Station. Photo: SayCheeeeeese, Wikimedia Commons

By George Harvey

The President wants to save coal and nuclear plants from closing, citing security issues. One estimate in the Caspar Star-Tribune, published in Wyoming, where coal is still king, said the cost of subsidies could be as high as $30 billion. ( The reason why the plants are closing is that both coal and nuclear power are much more expensive than wind or solar.

Lazard Associates provides what may be the most widely quoted financial advice on the levelized costs of electricity, in which costs of subsidies and incentives are included. Their cost range for wind power as $30 to $60 per megawatt-hour (MWh), and the cost for utility-scale solar at $43 to $53 per MWh. By contrast, the cost of coal is given as $60 to $143, and for nuclear at $112 to $183. ()

The experience of the 100-MW Hornsdale Power Reserve (HPR) suggests that batteries can earn money for backup power, even in the absence of renewable energy. The HPR was so successful that the amount of money it saved in the first four months of operation was 70% of what it cost to build it. Batteries that might back up wind and solar power are not money losers, they are money makers, because they also provide the backup needed for baseload power.

Coal is very dirty, and this creates economic problems. An example of coal’s damage is Lake Champlain’s once thriving fishing fleet. It was put completely out of business by a by-product of the coal industry, mercury, which made the lake’s fish unsafe to eat in any quantity.

A study published in the important British medical journal, The Lancet, in February concluded that one out of every six people who die prematurely do so because of pollution. () The losses include about 9 million deaths each year, worldwide. The economic losses amount to $4.6 trillion per year, or about 6.1% of the world’s gross economic output.

According to an article in the June, 2017 issue of Scientific American, up to 52,000 Americans die each year because particulate pollution, mostly from coal. ( The U.S. Department of Transportation, as cited in the Globalist, put the value of human life in this country at $6,000,000 in 2011, though other agencies had the figure much higher. () This means that the value of human life lost in 2011 was over $312 billion in the U.S.

Against this we could put the 1.73343 billion MWh the Energy Information Administration said coal produced in 2011. () Dividing the $312 billion by 1.73343 billion MWh gives us a rough guess at the cost of lost human life per unit of energy, a figure pretty close to $180/MWh, or 18¢/kilowatt-hour (kWh). To this we can add health costs of those who died and those who continue to live with the health problems caused by coal.

A detailed study cited by put the external costs of electricity from coal in a range of 9.36¢/kWh to 26.89¢/kWh, with a “best” estimate at 17.84¢/kWh. (

When we add the external costs to its price, we find that the electricity generated by coal-burning plants may cost considerably more than twice what it is charged for it on the retail market.

The administration says we need to save our coal plants for the sake of security. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission says this is wrong, and four of its five commissioners were appointed by Donald Trump. Electric utilities say it is wrong. Transmission systems say it is wrong.

Two federal agencies have identified serious security threats that could bring our grid down for over a year: terrorism and solar ejections. But coal and nuclear plants are useless when the grid is down; they provide no security. The way to address the problem of grid security is with renewable microgrids.

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