07/31/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Human Toll of Fossil Fuel Use

Most of my posts have focused on the environmental and public health impacts of burning fossil fuels due to their greenhouse gas emissions. But the 12 deaths from a liquefied petroleum gas explosion on an Italian train today are an important reminder that reduced emissions are not the only benefit from efficiency and renewable energy. Another stark difference between fossil energy and renewable energy is the risk to workers and others close to the fuel from the mine to the point of use.

Thousands of Deaths per Year

The same combustibility that makes fossil fuels a generous energy source claims the lives of thousands of people per year worldwide. A natural gas plant in Saudi Arabia recently exploded and killed 40 people. Several helicopters ferrying offshore oil workers have crashed in the last few months in the UK, the US, and Canada, killing scores of workers. But the most deaths probably occur in the coal mines of China, where thousands of miners lose their lives each year in explosions, collapses, and floods.

Renewable Energy Not Immune to Accidents

Wind turbines hundreds of feet in the air and rooftop solar installations can sometimes result in injuries or even a fatality as well. So the industry will need to take care and government regulations will be crucial to keep those numbers low as these industries scale up. Another risk that wind companies must take responsibility for is potential accidents at iron ore mines that are the source of their turbines' steel (a recent iron ore flooding accident in China claimed 29 lives).

Bottom Line: The transition to efficiency and renewable energy reliance can help reduce mortality in our global energy system -- not just from the effects of climate change and pollution. But even though wind and solar power may have inherently fewer risks, safety regulations will need to adapt to keep up with these new technologies and ensure the safety of the growing green-collar workforce.

Onwards in the Sustainable Energy Transition