The hidden costs of generating electricity from coal have been calculated in groundbreaking research by Harvard Medical School’s Centre for Health and Global Environment.The results of the study Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal released this week by co-author Dr Paul Epstein in Boston reveal that the health, environmental and other costs of using coal costs the United States are 500 billion dollars per year.
The study tracks the multiple health, environmental and climate change impacts of coal from its source at the mine to its combustion at the power plant.
Epstein was reported as stating the Centre “examined 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”.
The full study is expected to be published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences later this month.
Although the study is restricted to the US, it has implications for South Africa, which generates over 90 percent of its electricity from coal and is in the process of setting up three new coal-fired plants at a cost of R75 billion.
Figures from the US Energy Information Administration show that the US uses just over 1 billion tons of coal per year.
South Africa uses just under 10 percent of that amount. Figures on Eskom’s website show that 90 million tons of coal per year are used to generate electricity.
Theoretically, the costs of using coal in South Africa could be a little under $50 billion, or R350 billion.
According to the study, air pollution 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 $61.7 and $205.8 billion.
Other costs included up to $10 billion from land disturbances, impacts from toxic spills, declines in property values, tourism loss, and crop damage,” the study noted.
Coal has always been punted as the cheapest way to produce electricity but water and environmental specialist at One World Sustainable Investments, Arthur Chapman, said: “The costs in terms of impacts on human health, environmental degradation and loss of agriculture productivity are substantial and probably run into the hundreds of millions of Rands per year, if not more.”
He said the cost of electricity from coal needed to include the costs of air pollution, water pollution such as acid mine drainage from coal waste dumps, rainfall acidification, soil acidification, the clean up of abandoned mines, among others.
He said these costs were “externalised to the general populace of South Africa” including an increased cost for personal health care and taxpayers footing the bill for cleanups.]
However, Chapman said for economic reasons, coal could not simply be abandoned overnight
We needed to move toward more efficient coal-burning technologies, improved mining methods and mine rehabilitation and closure, as well as increased oversight and policing of the environmental impacts.
But the Harvard study was “a good place to start” as “people are only driven to actions once verifiable numbers are put into play as we then can understand the cost of doing nothing”.
Greenpeace Africa senior energy campaigner Dr Rianne Teule said the study verified years of campaigning about the hidden costs of using coal and showed there was “no reason” for South Africa to be or expand its use of when there was “huge potential” for renewable energy initiatives.
Both the Department of Energy and Eskom failed to respond to questions. – Yugendree Naidoo, West Cape News