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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Energy’s Hidden Costs

Air Date: Week of October 23, 2009

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The energy we use comes with a hidden price tag in the billions of dollars, according to a new study by the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council. Host Jeff Young and Dan Greenbaum, NAS study panelist, break down the hidden costs.


YOUNG: The radiation health effects study is one attempt to uncover a hidden price of our energy choices. Economists call these “externalities” -- the public health and environmental costs that do not show up in our energy bills. But we do pay for them eventually, one way or another. The National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council has put a number on those hidden energy costs and it’s a big one. Dan Greenbaum was on the Academies’ study panel. He researches air pollution impacts as president of the Health Effects Institute. Mr. Greenbaum, what price tag did the National Academies come up with?

GREENBAUM: We estimated that just for the cost related to continuing air pollution from power plants, and traffic, and heating our homes that we’re looking at over $120 billion dollars of health and other damages in the year 2005.

YOUNG: Just for one year?

GREENBAUM: For one year.

YOUNG: Now, where does that come from? What is costing us that?

GREENBAUM: Well, we looked primarily at emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and also the pollutants that cause ozone smog, and the biggest part of the estimates of our damage has to do with exposure to that particulate matter, which has been shown now in health studies to cause premature mortality. Roughly speaking, we estimated that the current levels of pollution from those sources cause between 18,000 and 20,000 deaths a year. Some would call our estimates an underestimate of these costs.

YOUNG: And what are the biggest offenders here? Where do we see the bulk of these costs?

GREENBAUM: Well, I think there were two major components of the 120 billion Dollars. One of those was coal-fired power plants; the other key place is transportation – cars and trucks. We looked at 406 power plants, which is almost every coal-fired power plant in the country, and about 50 percent of those were responsible for only 12 percent of the damage. So, they are newer, they are cleaner, they’ve been better controlled, but about ten percent of them were responsible for 43 percent of the damage. So, it’s a very concentrated problem in many respects.

YOUNG: So, when it came to exposing the hidden costs of our electricity, mostly it was about coal, and mostly about old coal?

GREENBAUM: That’s correct. We’re talking about older power plants being the biggest contributor to the damages that we estimated and by far coal was the biggest single contributor to that – to those damages.

YOUNG: So, coal, transportation…what about other sources of fuel that we use to generate our electricity? Are there any that stood out as not having so much hidden cost?

GREENBAUM: Well, we looked at most of the other ones. Electricity coming from natural gas did have some damage, but natural gas is much cleaner in the way it’s burned and the plants are generally newer, and we were – we estimated about a billion dollars a year of the 120 came from the natural gas plants. We also looked at nuclear plants, and at wind and solar. In the case of nuclear there were very, very few external effects of the sort that we were looking at, and the panel thought that the probability of an accident, which is the thing that many people worry about, is so low that per kilowatt hour of electricity generated that the external effects wouldn’t be as great. Wind and solar, similarly, very few effects that we saw.

YOUNG: Well you sure did a thorough job here. However, there are some things you didn’t take into account here. You didn’t really try to put a price tag on the potential climate change costs, or the costs of greenhouse gas emissions?

GREENBAUM: We could not pick a single number to make that estimate. There are a number of very detailed models that have been done to try and estimate these – it’s difficult to do because you’re talking about effects that are occurring pretty far in the future. And what we did is we found a range between dollar per ton of carbon dioxide and 100 dollars per ton of carbon dioxide emissions.

YOUNG: That’s a pretty big range.

GREENBAUM: A very big range, and what you see if for, like, coal and transportation that the damages, if 30 dollars per ton was the right number that the damages would be about equal to the ones that we estimated for non-climate damages.

YOUNG: So, it would be double the cost of what we’re already looking at.

GREENBAUM: Right, we didn’t make that choice, but if that was right choice for these numbers, it would result in a doubling of the damage costs.

YOUNG: But, in all likelihood, the fuels that would carry the highest carbon costs are by and large the same ones that have the large costs from the traditional, the conventional pollutants?

GREENBAUM: That’s correct. There are a lot of potential co-benefits of controlling emissions from power plants, for example, for both climate change and pollution.

YOUNG: What other things are not included in here? In other words, what hidden costs remain hidden despite your good efforts?

GREENBAUM: Well, we couldn’t fully quantify the effects on ecosystems, the effects of biofuels on water pollution, for example; the effects some hazardous air pollutants, such as mercury or lead; and there are also a set of external costs relating to national security, gird congestion on the electricity grid, and possible other things.

YOUNG: So, what are the major take-away lessons from all this?

GREENBAUM: Well, we’ve made a lot of progress on reducing conventional pollution, but this report tells us we have a lot of unfinished business. Room still to move to get further reductions to the tune of at least 120 billion dollars, although our estimate of those extra damages to health and the environment that are still happening is probably conservative, because we did not include climate change effects, effects on ecosystems and others.

YOUNG: Dan Greenbaum with Health Effects Institute, thanks for your time.

GREENBAUM: I’m really glad to be here.

YOUNG: You can read both that study and results from the radiation and public health project at our website LOE dot ORG.



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