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    Why Don't We Calculate Health Care Costs into the Price of Coal Power?

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    The Cholla coal-fired plant in Arizona, via Alan Stark on Flickr

    Coal's proponents say it's cheap, reliable, and provides lots of jobs in areas that don't have a whole lot of other options. Of course, that's countered by the fact that coal is particularly horrible for the environment. We've all heard this a million times, and I'm sure people will be arguing about coal for many years to come.

    But all that aside, the atmospheric pollution produced by coal plants adds very real (and very large) healthcare costs to surrounding communities. It's an intrinsic part of coal power, so why aren't those costs calculated into the real cost of coal?

    The latest story to ask the "true cost of coal" question comes from Canada, where a new report estimates the health costs of coal power in Alberta to be close to $300 million, and that coal power results in "over 4,000 asthma episodes, over 700 emergency visits for respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, and around 80 hospital admissions, with chronic exposures resulting in nearly 100 premature deaths" annually. Before we go any further, it's important to note that those numbers aren't definitive, as The Globe and Mail notes.

    It's hard to quantify health costs in general, and it's hard to quantify how many medical conditions are directly attributable to the toxic air contaminants released from coal combustion, like mercury, nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides (which contribute to acid rain), and particulate matter. Still, the report argues that health costs add somewhere between 50 percent and 200 percent to the price of coal production.

    This is hardly the first study to try to highlight the health costs of coal. A study in Europe suggested coal power cost the EU 43 billion euros a year in health costs, while the US bill has been estimated at a whopping $500 billion. What does that mean? Aside from poisoning the air, integrating healthcare into coal cost calculations could change the parity equation.

    US Energy Information Administration data for the cost of building new power plants show the result of the fracking boom: natural gas power production is currently far cheaper than anything else. But coal is still our largest source of power, and EIA data show that as it stands now, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric power is cheaper than coal.

    Those are all harder to scale up, but nuclear is about level, while solar projects average between 50 percent and 150 percent more costly than coal. Now, we're talking about two sets of estimated ranges here, but adding the health costs of coal power to its real price would go a long way towards making solar and other green energy sources more attractive from an economic standpoint. The environmental and health benefits of ditching coal are clear, but it's also important to note that there's an economic case to be made as well.