A Beautiful Thing Happened After Coal-Fired Plants Were Shut Down in the U.S.

The study found that shuttering coal plants went a long way toward cleaning up local environments. Sherman Cahal/Shutterstock

You might expect shutting down coal-fired plants would net a few benefits. After all, there are good reasons why nation after nation have made it their mission to wean themselves off fossil fuels.

Clearly, burning coal results in emissions that play a crucial role in climate change.

But a new study from the University of California San Diego reveals just how dramatically the elimination of coal-burning plants in the U.S. can change the environment for the better.

The paper, published this week in Nature Sustainability, focused on the results of a steady transition from coal to natural gas for electricity production between 2005 and 2016.

Over that 10-year span, carbon dioxide emissions declined along with pollution levels in hundreds of regions across the U.S. And with fewer airborne pollutants, like aerosols, ozone and other compounds, human and plant health boomed.

In fact, according to the paper, decommissioning coal plants saved an estimated 26,610 lives. By burning less of it, the lower atmosphere was burdened with less particulate matter and ozone — factors known to compromise human health.

Without those pesky pollutants hanging in the air, crops prospered as well. The research suggests areas around decommissioned plants saw additional yields of some 570 million bushels of corn, soybeans and wheat.

"The unique contribution of this study is its scope and the ability to connect discrete technology changes — like an electric power unit being shut down — to local health, agriculture and regional climate impacts," study author Jennifer Burney of the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy notes in a press release.

Smokestack from a factory
As Burney explains in the report, 'Although there are considerable benefits of decommissioning older coal-fired units, the newer natural gas and coal-fired units that have supplanted them are not entirely benign.'. Tumarkin Igor - ITPS/Shutterstock

To reach those conclusions, Burney analyzed data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and NASA data to mark local pollution levels before and after a coal plant was shuttered.

In addition, she looked at changes in mortality rates and crop yields using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But while the elimination of coal plants seemed to be a net positive for local environments, there's the sticky issue of replacing them.

Natural gas plants produce pollutants as well, including CO2. And natural gas is hardly a renewable resource.

Burney points out the pollutant mix from natural gas is different from that produced by burning coal. But, as a newer technology, natural gas plants certainly bear further research.

The results, at least as tallied in this study, speak for themselves.

"We hear a lot about the overall greenhouse gas and economic impacts of the transition the U.S. has undergone in shifting from coal towards natural gas, but the smaller-scale decisions that make up this larger trend have really important local consequences," she explains. "The analysis provides a framework for communities to more thoroughly and accurately assess the costs and benefits of local investments in energy."