New Study Finds Shutting Down Coal Plants Saved 26,000 Lives

Photo: Ken Stewart, ZUMA Press

A new study published this week in the Journal Nature found that the switch from coal-fired power plants to natural gas plants during the 11 year period from 2005-16 coincided with a huge reduction of 26,000 deaths and a significant increase in agricultural productivity nearby the plants.  These changes in power plants (combined with advances in emissions controls technologies) led to much lower toxic air pollution— they “produced net reductions in SO2 and NOx of more than 80% and 60% respectively,” according to the research.

Why This Matters:  These results are striking — the study found that the health benefits from fuel switching began to accrue almost immediately — the mortality rate dropped quickly.  The study’s author correctly notes that natural gas also has its problems because it results in releases of methane releases that are more potent for climate change than carbon releases.  But the bottom line message is clear — closing coal-fired power plants saves lives and likely also saves society overall due to lower health care and other costs.  The agricultural benefits are significant as well and are a less well-studied additional benefit from reduced pollution.  So let’s get on with it and close the approximately 300 remaining ones, instead of propping them up and trying to keep them going like the Trump Administration.

The Study By The Numbers

  • More than 330 coal-fired power ended operations in the U.S. between 2005 and 2016
  • The shutdown of coal-fired units saved an estimated 26,610 (5%–95% confidence intervals (CI), 2,725–49,680) lives in the immediate vicinity of those plants
  • The shutdown also increased by 570 million (249–878 million) the bushels of corn, soybeans, and wheat in the immediate vicinity of those plants

The study also looked at the impact of the plants that remained open.  Those were associated with huge negative impacts.

  • The remaining coal plants caused 329,417 deaths in their immediate vicinities.
  • The remaining coal plants caused the loss of 10.2 billion bushels of staple crops between 2005 and 2016.

The study’s author told The Guardian, ”

“When you turn coal units off you see deaths go down. It’s something we can see in a tangible way. There is a cost to coal beyond the economics. We have to think carefully about where plants are sited, as well as how to reduce their pollutants.”

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