Coal Costs the U.S. $500 Billion Annually in Health, Economic, Environmental Impacts

Chinese coal plant

A report from Harvard researchers in this month's Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences will reveal that coal use costs the U.S. between a third and over half a trillion dollars each year in health, economic, and environmental impacts.

Coal is the most popular electricity-generating fuel, with 40% of electricity worldwide generated by coal plants. It's a number that is only expected to grow; by 2030, electricity demand around the world will double. But while coal is cheap and abundant, it has plenty of hidden costs.

The report, written by Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, examines the life cycle of coal production to find "hidden costs," or costs that occur "when the activity of one agent affects the well-being of another agent outside of any type of market mechanism."

These costs include damages from climate change (like weather events and rising seas, public health damages from toxins released during electricity generation, deaths from rail accidents during coal transport, public health problems in coal-mining regions (in Appalachia, mountaintop removal contaminates surface and groundwater with carcinogens and heavy metals), government subsidies, and lost value of abandoned mine areas.

In Appalachian communities alone, public health burdens from coal mining cost $74.6 billion each year. Air pollutant emissions cost $187.5 billion, mercury emission impacts reach $29.3 billion, and greenhouse gas emissions (and accompanying climate change effects) from coal-fired plants costs between between $61.7 and $205.8 billion. And then there are the smaller costs—between $2.2 and $10 billion in impacts from land disturbances, and impacts from toxic spills, declines in property values, tourism loss, and crop damage.

The paper isn't too bullish on carbon capture and storage at coal plants, either, explaining that "in addition to the control technique not altering the upstream life cycle cost—significant obstacles lie in the way, including the costs of construction of suitable plants and underground storage facilities."

So what can be done? The world must phase out coal use—or face ever-increasing health and environmental costs. Alternative energy sources may be more expensive when the monthly energy bill arrives, but that is clearly only part of the story.

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Ariel Schwartz can be reached by email.

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  • william r

    any suggestions from party nope there to busy holding on to life with there greed for money and power what we need is people whom are ready to make supper dupper sacrifizes for the sake of all humanity has a whole rather then people just saving money and ones own personal skin

  • william r

    where damed if we do and damed if we do,nt we need to make major supper dupper sacrifizes people are so scared of this situation there petrified just like they would be in a vast forrest or herd of dinosaurs seems to me all that dead stuff is causeing death. from death comes death seems barring intervention from god we,ve climbed the tree of knowledge all the way to the top like a scared dog barking our heads off hopeing that,ll help . unless a higher being rescues us we,ll sure,dly in for a mighty fall

  • JonathanRCole

    Much valuable free information to educate yourself on the facts of solar energy from an international solar consultant is available at and the associated web log http://lightontheearth.blogspo.... I am not sure that the dissemination of incorrect information about renewable energy is a conspiracy by vested interests, but as an MBA with 3 decades oif experience with solar I can tell you that the real impediments are a matter of financing which is now available from many companies such as SunSrun and SunEdison. The utility companies do all the financing of the infrastructure and costs of providing you with energy in your home and business. Once we get over the financing and permitting bottlenecks, the old paradigm for delivering energy starts to look extremely antiquated and dangerous!

  • JonathanRCole

    The only quarrel I have with this article is the last sentence. I have been living on solar for decades and believe me it is not necessarily more expensive when the monthly energy bill arrives. In many cases the energy bill is significantly less. Well why wouldn't it be? Unlike coal, the fuel is free. Solar, wind, tidal, hydro, only require the installation of equipment. Coal need the equipment and then unending fuel costs which keep going up in price as the costs to mine and transport it increase and the federal reserve system prints money and debases the currency. Once you have the solar equipment you costs are locked in for decades. I have written a book Light on the Earth: The Solar Option to give people the facts.