In a landscape marred by entrenched political and business interests that prefer the status quo, any prospect of shifting towards renewable energy sources can at times seem the purview of idealists. But, according to a new study that aims for a more holistic count of energy costs, a switch to renewables by the U.S. wouldn't only be good for the planet -- it would actually make better sense financially.
While on its face, producing electricity from fossil fuels might seem like the cheaper option, it fails to take into account the full picture. When public health, environmental, and social costs of tapping polluting energy resources are factored in, says the study, renewables like wind and solar would actually be cheaper.
The study notes that most of the pollution generated in the U.S. today comes from coal-fired power plants, accounting for 40 percent of the nation's carbon footprint. But in addition to electricity, burning coal leads to countless unintended, yet pricey consequences, like increased rates of heart disease, respiratory illnesses, and premature death -- as well as many environmental impacts associated with climate change.
Using a metric called the “social cost of carbon” (SCC), derived by the Department of Energy, every ton of carbon emitted by these plants actually taxes society $33 dollars in indirect costs. Yet, as study-author Dr. Laurie Johnson, chief economist in the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, points out:
"There are no federal limits on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants may release. That's wrong. It doesn't make sense. It's putting our future at risk. We limit the amount of mercury, arsenic, soot, and other harmful pollution from these plants. It's time to cut this carbon pollution."
In addition to the added health costs from carbon pollution, its effect on the environment alone is a huge fiscal burden. Johnson estimates that $100 billion in U.S. tax dollars were spent, last year alone, as a result of extreme weather events linked to climate change.
"Already, climate change is contributing to record heat waves, floods, drought, wildfires and severe storms," says Johnson. "These damages are only likely to increase if nothing is done to reduce carbon pollution."
Fortunately, an alternative is available that would be more cost-effective. According to the study, replacing coal plants with renewable energy sources would save America money.
[It’s] cheaper to replace a typical existing coal-fired power plant with a wind turbine than to keep the old plant running. And new electricity generation from wind could be more economically efficient than natural gas.
The findings show the nation can cut carbon pollution from power plants in a cost-effective way, by replacing coal-fired generation with cleaner options like wind, solar, and natural gas.
Given the state of decision making and infighting in Washington, making the switch will undoubtedly be an uphill battle on a federal level. But from a purely pragmatic standpoint, it's looking more and more like a no-brainer.
“Burning coal is a very costly way to make electricity," Johnson concludes. "There are more efficient and sustainable ways to get power.”