Loss of Life from Coal Pollution Outweighs Value of Electricity

Guest Blog | June 12, 2012 | Coal, Energy Policy
A new study from the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) finds that in many cases, the value of lost life from a coal plant’s pollution outweighs the value of the electricity that the plant produces. EIP looked at a large selection of coal plants from across the United States. Using conservative estimates, they determined that pollution at 18 coal-fired power plants led to a loss of human life that, when valued in 2012 dollars, was more significant than the value of the electricity that the plant sold. Of these 18 plants, 10 were in the Southeast (13 if you include Virginia and West Virginia in the region.)

EIP collaborated with Dr. Jonathan Levy, a professor at the Boston University School of Public health. Together they looked at publicly available government data on air pollution from coal plants. They were able to use atmospheric dispersion models to estimate how broadly that pollution spreads and how many people it could impact. Once they calculated the number of people likely impacted they used a peer-reviewed and widely accepted analysis to set a value to a human life and applied that number to the number of premature deaths resulting from each plant. The authors then simply calculated the total value of electricity sold from each plant by multiplying each plant’s net electricity generation by the average retail rate for electricity in the plant’s home state. If the cost in human lives was greater than the value of the electricity sold then EIP listed that plant in its new report.

The plants in SACE’s region are shown in the table below:

Luckily, the owners of most of these plants have, or are planning to, shut them down rather than invest the money necessary to reduce their life-threatening pollution. All of the plants noted here and located in Tennessee and the Carolinas are scheduled for retirement. However, a few plants stand out. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Shawnee plant in Kentucky and Southern Company plants Yates and Greene County in Georgia and Alabama respectively are all ripe for retirement for economic reasons. This new report highlights that they are also ripe for retirement for reasons of human health and societal harms. In fact, taking only these three plants as examples, and using the most conservative numbers, they contribute to 219 deaths in a year. Using the report’s value of $8.3 million per human life, these plants cause $1.8 billion in damage, they only produce $1.2 billion in electricity.

One might criticize the authors’ methods and say that they have not put fair values on these variables of human life and the value of electricity. Perhaps that is true, but in that case I put the following question to the reader: Should the power companies charge you more for electricity or do the authors put too much value on a human life?

Guest Blog
My Profile