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Rebecca Anderson Headshot

500 Billion Reasons to Reconsider Coal

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Do you know where your electricity comes from? I don't. I know I should, but it turns out it's not that easy to find out. My power company won't tell me (not online or when asked by email, anyway). The EPA does have an online tool to tell you where your electricity comes from, but it lacks details.

But who cares about how we get electricity, as long as it's cheap, right? That's the beautiful illusion of electricity -- when you plug in, it doesn't matter where it came from. Whether it's a hydroelectric dam (like much of mine in northern California), clean solar or wind power or even coal, at the consumer end, it's all the same. There's no clean silky smoothness to it if it comes from solar power and no little pile of soot beneath your outlets if it comes from coal. You'll never know the difference.

This kind of bothers me. Because it's pretty hard to care about something if you can't even see how it affects you. And coal power DOES affect you -- in a big way. Burning coal gives the U.S. about half of our power. That's because it's cheap, it's plentiful and it's oh-so-homegrown, meaning it pushes us toward that coveted dream of energy independence. We are the Saudi Arabia of coal. We have the world's largest supply of recoverable coal, over 275 billion tons. That's more energy than all the rest of the world's oil reserves.

We burn over 1 billion tons of that coal every year and 9 out of every 10 tons goes toward making electricity. On average, electricity from coal costs ~10 ¢/kWh (cents per kilowatt-hour) whereas wind or solar is more like 15-25 ¢/kWh. No wonder we're so hooked in it.

But that's before all those externalities -- outside costs that go along with burning coal that don't get factored into the price. For starters, you get the least bang for your buck when you burn coal, compared to oil or gas. For the same amount of energy produced, burning coal emits 1.5 times the CO2 as oil and twice as much CO2 as natural gas.

But even with climate change aside, coal pollutes at every step of use. It pollutes when we mine it through mountaintop removal and acid mine drainage (acid water from a mine getting into streams), as well as being dangerous to the people who mine it -- the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine last year in West Virginia that killed 29 miners reminded us of that. That amounts to $74 billion a year in health costs in Appalachia alone.

And then there's air pollution -- smog, particulate matter that goes into lungs, mercury, arsenic and more. (See a list of all pollutants here.) The health care costs associated with all this pollution are huge. A recent study (PDF) found that air pollution from coal costs Americans up to $200 billion a year. All told, the external costs of burning coal add up to almost half a trillion dollars per year. The same study estimates that, if these health and environmental costs were included, coal would cost at least 2-3 times more than it currently does. That would make its price on par with the current cost of solar and wind energy.

My sense is that most people would be pretty shocked to learn that health care and environmental costs of coal total almost $500 billion a year. I was surprised and I thought I knew about coal. It's the seductive versatility of electricity that keeps us from connecting the dots between the power we use every day and the dirty side effects of creating it.

What we need is a new term for coal power -- something like the term "blood diamond" -- that clearly communicates that your sparkly clean diamond has a dark history. I'll take suggestions -- something that makes the link between 50% of most Americans' electricity supply and $500 billion in hidden costs and damages. Too bad there's no little anthill of soot piling up under the outlet, too.

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