Friday, June 02, 2017


Burning coal is a dirty business.  A new study makes it clear just how dirty it is, and how many lives could be saved by generating our electricity from the sun instead.

Coal-fired power plant
(CC0 Public Domain)

In research published in the peer-reviewed journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, materials engineer Joshua Pearce and energy policy specialist Emily Prehoda quantify the number of American lives lost every year from respiratory, cardiac and other illnesses caused by pollution from burning coal. It turns out to be a shocking 52,000 lives. That's more than the number killed in car crashes (about 35,000 in recent years) and by firearms (around 12,000 per year) combined.

Pearce and Prehoda arrived at their estimate by comparing coal burning and mortality rates geographically. They found a strong correlation between rates of illness and death and proximity to coal-fired electrical plants. On average, they calculated, there's one additional death from the production of 25 million kilowatt-hours of electricity from coal. Across the US, that means that 52,000 people die every year from coal-caused air pollution.

The researchers point out that with current off-the-shelf technologies, we could generate all the electricity we need from the sun. They also examine the potential health risks from manufacturing and transporting solar panels. These turn out to be a minute fraction of the risks from coal.

It's of course true that replacing all the electricity currently generated by burning coal with solar energy would be a costly investment--about $1,000,000 for every life saved.

However, the authors point out, that doesn't count the economic value of the electricity generated. In many regions, solar energy is already cheaper than electricity from coal or other fossil fuels, and the price of solar energy is continuing to fall rapidly. (Note: wind power is even cheaper). When the monetary savings from generating our power from solar rather than coal are factored in, in most cases switching to solar saves money as well as lives.

"Unlike other public health investments, you get more than lives saved," says Pearce. "In addition to saving lives, solar is producing electricity, which has economic value."

The bottom line--the sooner and faster we make the transition from coal and other fossil fuels to solar and other renewable energy sources the better, for our health, our lives, and our pocketbooks.


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