April 12, 2010

Newsweek - Wrong on Coal

Newsweek wrote an article last week on coal's future in America which was so filled with factual errors and false pretexts that it might easily have been written by someone in the coal industry. 

Let's correct some of the mis-statements of fact in that article. 

1) The article leads with the statement - "Coal is the one fuel that powers most of what we do."
The false pretext is that the author assumes that electricity is our only source of energy in America. In actual fact, coal provides about 22.4% of US energy. (2007 data)

Even if you look only at electricity, the notion that coal provides "most" of our power is also incorrect. Most means more than 50%, while coal provides about 44.6% of the nation's electrical energy. (2009 data). 

2) Then the author claims that "as demand for power increases... coal is poised to play a bigger, not smaller, role in our energy landscape." 

The Department of Energy disagrees in its 2010 Annual Energy Outlook, which suggests that coal's share of our energy generation will decline slightly over the next 25 years. During the same period, renewable energy's share of total energy consumption is projected to grow by a factor of 2.2x. 

3) The author then states that the reason coal will play a bigger role is because it is just so much cheaper than the alternatives. This again turns out to be false. The Department of Energy shows that new natural gas plants produce electrical energy at about 79% to 83% of the cost of new coal fired electrical plants. These projections of levelized cost of energy do not even include the cost of negative externalities (for example, mountain top mining, toxic sludge containment breaches, health and climate) that result from the burning of coal. 

4) The author then makes the case that externalities like miner's safety shouldn't be included in the cost of our energy, stating that  "because accidents—from mine cave-ins...  don't happen often enough for safety to become a formidable factor in the national discussion on our energy future." 

Perhaps they should. Over 300 people have died in accidents while mining coal in the United States in the last decade and over 10,000 miners die each decade from black lung disease. 

And then there are the health risks for the rest of us. Over 23,000 people die each year from the particulate matter emissions from power plants. The cost to society from particulate emissions from power plants is $150 billion dollars a year. That works out to $1,300 per year each and every household in America is paying in higher health care bills to subsidize coal power plants. 

How much do you pay for electricity each year? How does that number compare to the $1,300 you are paying in increased health care costs? 

Of course there is the very real risk that you or a loved one could be one of the people who end up in the hospital or the morgue as a result of breathing the toxic chemicals emitted by the coal plants. That risk should certainly be part of our national energy discussion. 

As is so often the case, when the fossil fuel industry tells you about the benefits of "cheap coal", they really mean that someone else is paying the price and that person may very well be you or your family. 

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