Why Energy's Dirty Air Pollution Costs Are Dropping

Mar 31, 2016

We often hear about the economic costs of environmental regulation on the energy industry. But there’s a flipside to that equation — the price society pays for pollution. One scientist has added up those costs — and found they’re going down. For Inside Energy, the Allegheny Front’s Reid Frazier went to find out why.

For years, scientists have known that pollution from burning fossil fuels is bad for us. But can we place a dollar amount on the hidden costs of burning coal and other fossil fuels for electricity? One person who wanted to know was Paulina Jaramillo.

"I study the environmental impacts of energy systems."

So the Carnegie Mellon scientist called up a colleague. They designed a model to find out.

The researchers plugged in pollution reports from the EPA, weather models and population data. They took into account the effects of pollution on crops, forests, and infrastructure. And human health. Much of that cost hinges on one basic number. And it’s a sort of creepy number.

"Value of a statistical life — which is a number widely used in policy analyses to estimate mortality costs."

The value of a statistical life. It’s basically the amount of money we as a society are willing to spend to save someone’s life. And according to the federal government, it’s around $6 million these days.

Since the early 2000s, emissions from sources like coal-fired power plants have been going down. And because of this, Jaramillo found that the annual cost of pollution declined from 2002 to 2011 by about 25 percent, to $130 billion.

"Because we started reducing these emissions we reduced health impacts...we cannot pinpoint who is specifically benefitted but on a population basis, there are benefits."

So, what happened? Jaramillo says the big change is that new regulations forced many coal-fired power plants to clean up. The Great Recession lowered demand for a few years, and cleaner sources, like natural gas, have cut into coal’s share of the electricity market.

These costs may be going down, but the pricetag the researchers calculated is still around $400 for every person in the U.S.

Where can you see these costs in real life? You can try the emergency room at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh.

"Over here we have our x-ray suites, most of these patients that you’re involved require some x-ray study to see if they've developed a pneumonia for example, on top of their underlying condition."

Arvind Venkat is an emergency physician at the hospital. Venkat says his patients will come in because of a cold or allergic reaction, but the underlying causes include lots of other factors, including air pollution.

"What happens a lot with these patients is that either allergies due to air pollution or they get a virus of some sort--that really triggers them to require acute care, and pollution is a well-recognized trigger."

Studies show that ER visits for heart and lung ailments go up on days when pollution is highest. And at around $1,000 bucks a pop, costs for ER visits for people with breathing problems can add up.

That cost was visible one day last year, when 60-year-old Linda Dever visited the emergency room.

"About 3 o’clock this morning, I woke up, the whole right side, i couldn't breathe. When I tried to inhale. It just hurt so bad. I couldn’t inhale."

Dever was a smoker until a few years ago. But since being diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, she’s been to the ER about once a year.

"l drive a school bus, and when I leave to the lot and walk up to my car, just a little bit of a grade, as soon as I get in my car, I have to get my inhaler out and use my inhaler, cause I can't breathe."

There’s no way of knowing whether Pittsburgh’s air had anything to do with Dever’s breathing problems that day. But pollution has been shown to cause the same types of inflammation that make lung conditions like hers worse and an ER visit more likely.

For Jaramillo, the takeaway from her study is simple:

"We need to continue regulating these emissions, because they have been effective," Jaramillo says. "And if emissions from places like coal plants continue to decline, so will their costs."

This story comes to us from Allegheny Front, a news program covering the environment in Pennsylvania.