Advocates of coal power argue that it is among the cheapest sources of energy in the United States and allows for lower-cost power. But a new Harvard study found that whatever money is saved in operation costs is completely negated by the cost coal plants inadvertently pass on to the American public: $345 billion. These hidden expenses are not borne by miners or utilities, but come from the detrimental side affects of coal burning, like health problems in mining communities and pollution around coal plants. The study is the first to look at the entire cost of coal, from extraction to combustion.

The extra cost would effectively triple the price of electricity produced by coal-fired plants. The study’s lead author, Paul Epstein, a Harvard Medical School Instructor and the associate director of its Center for Health and the Global Environment, told Reuters that the extra costs are borne by the public, through our taxes. “The public cost is far greater than the cost of the coal itself,” he said. “The impacts of this industry go way beyond just lighting our lights.”

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Photo credit: Keith Syvinski

Coal plants currently supply about 45 percent of the nation’s electricity, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. In November, data showed that the average price of coal electricity was about 10 cents per kWh. The ancillary costs revealed in Epstein’s study would add about 18 cents to each kWh, making it one of the most expensive forms of energy.

The $345 billion figure was the study’s best estimate of coal-burning costs, but they could possibly be as much as $523 billion. The costs take into account a variety of side effects, including illnesses and elevated rates of cancer in coal towns, environmental damage and lost tourism where mountaintop removal is practiced, and global warming resulting from elevated levels of CO2.


Coal-fired plants inflict significant damage on the environment and people’s health, yet people continue to advocate for coal as an energy source because of its inexpensive operation costs. Epstein’s study shows that the cost of coal is far higher than what we believe. His study can help people better understand the detrimental effects of coal-burning, helping to move us toward more clean energy.

Via Mother Nature Network