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Dangers of Coal

Posted by on in Economics of Solar
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We all hear things like: "There are a lot of harmful emissions from fossil-fuel generators like coal", and perhaps there is mention of "CO2" and "climate-change" or even "global warming", and we assume its all the one thing - well, its not.

Coal is called "dirty coal" for very good reasons - namely, health reasons.

The American Economic Review published a paper quantizing the pollution/health effects of burning coal - this is called Gross External Damages (GED).
The paper is titled "Environmental Accounting for Pollution in the United States Economy" - Click for PDF

As the paper states:
"This paper uses the Air Pollution Emission Experiments and Policy (APEEP) analysis model, which is an integrated assessment economic model of air pollution for the United States (Muller and Mendelsohn 2007). The APEEP model connects emissions of six major pollutants (sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), ammonia (NH3), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and coarse particulate matter (PM10-PM2.5)) to the physical and economic consequences of these discharges on society. The effects included in the model calculations are adverse consequences for human health, decreased timber and agriculture yields, reduced visibility, accelerated depreciation of materials, and reductions in recreation services."

Of note is that the paper also includes GED results for the power generation industry, both with and without effects of CO2. This is notable because critics doubting the effects of CO2, will now have to explain away these other damages!

We can make an approximation of the GED data for Australia, using the ratio to the US data, for the data that is readily available. This will give at least a meaningful indication, even if it is widely approximate.
In 2010, the US electricity consumption was 3886TWh from all sources, with 1765TWh from coal. For 2008, the equivalent Australian consumption was 224TWh, with 121TWh from coal. This gives our coal usage ratio of 0.0686 to the US, ie our consumption from coal is about 6.86% of the US.

From page '1665' of the paper (although it is only 28 pages in total), we see that the Gross External Damages due to coal-fired generation is $US53.4 billion per year - this equates to $AUD3.94billion per year.

Adding the fuel-tax subsidies ($2bn/year) and other transport tax concessions (also $2bn/year) given to the energy generation industry in Australia, we start to get overall subsidies/damages costs of running coal-fired generation in Australia of around $8billion per year. And thats without adding any damage costs due to CO2 - coal-fired generation is both hazardous to ourselves, and expensive - compared to renewable generation.

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Chris Hart has been employed in the field of IT majoring in hardware and power issues for over 20 years, followed by 15 years designing and supplying solar battery systems for domestic and commercial markets. He has qualifications in electronic engineering and management.


  • Guest
    Martin Sunday, 14 September 2014

    Are you sure about the percentage of electricity from coal in Australia? Is the figure you quote only from black coal or also from brown coal (lignite)? A quick online search gave a figure of 78% of the electricity in Australia having been produced from coal - both brown and black - in 2009. How would that alter the cost calculations?

  • Guest
    Chris Sunday, 14 September 2014

    Yes, it looks as though I managed to use a ref that was for black coal only! - thanks for your diligence. I briefly looked and found figures for 2008 and 2012, and it seems black and brown coal run at about 75%+. This is in line with your check. Applying the increase from around 50% original figure to 75% brings the health damages up to around $5.5billion - Thanks again.

  • Guest
    E.A. Wednesday, 15 April 2015

    That cartoon of wind turbines vs. a coal plant is a visual deception. They use a lot more acreage than standard power plants and are generally much taller. It can take about 800 wind turbines to match the output of one coal plant, assuming the wind holds up. In the context of visual blight it's very devious to compare the two. The biggest problem people have with wind turbines is their physical footprint, so it makes no sense to just show one next to a coal plant. Below is a realistic view showing the Mt. Storm coal plant vs. Nedpower wind turbines in WV, USA. No, I'm not a climate denier, just tired of wind turbines' false green image vs. their true impact on nature.

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