The true cost of coal

The true cost of coalCoal remains one of the main sources of energy in many parts of the world, including the Philippines. According to the Department of Energy, as of 2015, 44.5 percent of the country’s energy comes from coal. The Philippines is set to add even more coal plants, with are more than 20 new plants in the pipeline.

One reason for coal’s continued dominance is its apparent cheapness. But this apparent cheapness is a result of the failure to take full account of real cost of coal. This becomes even more true when coal is compared with other energy sources, especially renewable ones such as solar, wind, and hydro. If these things are accounted for, coal comes out to be expensive for people and the planet.

Coal’s apparent cheapness is due to a variety of factors. For one, the machinery required to burn coal and convert the heat energy to electricity is relatively simple. In a coal-fired power plant, coal is ground into a powder and burned. The heat produced is then used to heat water. The boiling water produces steam, which then powers a turbine linked to a generator. This way of generating power is essentially the same method invented by James Watt that kick-started the Industrial Revolution.

Another reason for coal’s apparent cheapness is the low price of coal in the market. One factor in this low market price is the large supply of coal in the region coming from Indonesia. According to Enerdata, “Indonesia is the world’s second coal and lignite exporter,” after Australia, accounting for 97% of Southeast Asia’s coal exports. “This cheap and easy availability in the region explains why coal is so widely used to meet the rising power generation needs,” explains Enerdata’s website.

But what is the price the real price of burning coal?

Coal is a fossil fuel. Like other kinds of fossil fuel, such as oil and natural gas, burning coal releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and is the main cause of global warming and climate change. However, of the different kinds of fossil fuels, coal  produces the most carbon when burned, making it the dirtiest energy source in terms of carbon pollution.

To estimate the true cost of burning fossil fuels, economists and environmentalists have come up with the concept called the social cost of carbon. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the social cost of carbon is a “measure of the economic harm” from the impacts of climate change “expressed as the dollar value of the total damages from emitting one ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”

The current estimate of the social cost of carbon is at $40 per ton. This estimate is made by an Interagency Working Group in the US comprised of different government agencies. While pro-industry groups contest this figure, many experts say this number is an underestimation. 

However, carbon is not the only pollutant emitted by burning coal. Burning coal releases the noxious gases sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. It also releases toxic heavy metals and particulate matter that is small enough to get into people’s lungs.

Sulfur dioxide is a harmful gas that can penetrate human lungs. According to the U.S. Union of Concerned Scientists, sulfur dioxide is also “linked with asthma, bronchitis, smog, and acid rain, which damages crops and other ecosystems, and acidifies lakes and streams.”

Nitrous oxides, meanwhile, “irritate lung tissue, exacerbate asthma, and make people more susceptible to chronic respiratory diseases like pneumonia and influenza,” according to the Union. 

Heavy metals like mercury, lead, and cadmium that are spewed by coal plants can do serious damage to the nervous system of people living near the plant.

Often, the toxins released by burning coal are carried by soot or particulate matter. One kind, called particulate matter 2.5 or PM2.5, is smaller than the width of a human hair and can easily get inside human lungs. 

In fact, fossil fuels are so dangerous that, according to the NASA’s Global Climate Change website, it is more dangerous than even nuclear power. 

Coal’s ability to pollute goes beyond the air. Coal can also pollute water sources with harmful substances. One product of burning coal is coal ash. When water seeps through coal ash, it may carry the toxic chemicals all the way to the groundwater, where it can contamination the water that people use for their daily lives. 

Because of all these effects, researchers from the Harvard Medical School estimate the total cost of coal to the US at $500 billion. Coal probably has a proportionally high cost to Filipinos in terms of the hospital bills of all the people affected by its pollution.

Given that our country has a “right to develop,” we can as a people can decide what route that development can take. If we are to follow science, the most humane and cost-effective way is for that development to have less coal and fossil fuels, and more renewables and sustainable practices.

Topics: coal , Department of Energy , James Watt , Environmental Defense Fund
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