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As Washington Debates "Clean Energy Standard," Report Details Little-Understood Harmful Health, Water and Other Impacts of Coal and Nuclear Power in U.S.

WASHINGTON, D.C.///January 25, 2011///The 8,000-34,000 premature deaths each year linked to coal-fired power plant pollution cost society between $64 billion to $272 billion, an amount that is up to four times as expensive as the total cost of the coal-generated electricity itself, according to an analysis released today by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., for the nonprofit and nonpartisan Civil Society Institute (CSI) think tank. The Synapse report for CSI also outlines the considerable water impacts of the nation's current reliance on coal and nuclear power.

Pam Solo, president and founder, Civil Society Institute, said: "What we refer to as the 'Business As Usual' (BAU) approach to electricity production carries significant costs, chief among them the health impacts. As the White House and the Congress propose moving from a Renewable Energy Standard to what they are calling a "Clean Energy Standard," there should be a full and public debate about what constitutes 'clean' energy. Traditional energy developers and producers refer to the social and economic impacts of reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power as 'externalities'. The high risk and extensive cost in terms of human health, productivity and long term economic competitiveness are essential components of defining and moving toward a sustainable and truly clean energy future."

Titled "Benefits of Beyond Business as Usual," the Synapse report for CSI notes: "The human health costs of burning coal are real and substantial. The extraordinary social cost of the annual 8,000 – 34,000 premature deaths, when valued by current federal standards, imparts a cost on society of $64 to $272 billion; this cost is up to four times as expensive as the cost of electricity from coal."

Addressing the water impacts of coal-fired power production, Dr. Jeremy Fisher, scientist, Synapse Energy Economics Inc., said: "The existing coal fleet in the United States exacts an expensive toll on the US. The fleet itself is fairly inexpensive to operate, and for years has been a source of cheap electricity. However, we know now that each year, emissions of acid gasses and toxic particulates are at the root of thousands of premature deaths each year. The fleet leaches waste into our groundwater and rivers, heats hundreds of waterways with thermal effluent, consumes millions of acre-feet of water, and releases the largest fraction of emissions which are leading us quickly towards a very different climate. These costs, as dramatic as they may be, are almost completely hidden from the public view and are invisible to consumers."

According to the new report, the existing coal-fired electric power fleet is responsible for:

42 trillion gallons of water withdrawn from surface and groundwater, at the rate of more than 200 billion gallons a day;
Nearly a trillion gallons of water consumed by coal plant cooling systems, representing well over two thousand gallons for each person in the US;
About 100 million tons of toxic coal wastes dumped into landfills, sludge ponds, and holding ponds;
Impaired visibility at the great US national monuments and parks; and
Two billion tons of carbon dioxide, the primary cause of global climate change, drowning coastal regions, reducing water availability in water-short regions, and causing the extinction of an estimated 20-30 percent of plant and animal species.

Synapse's Fisher said: "It is likely that the cost of investments to adequately address all of the damages from coal combustion would greatly exceed the marginal costs of transitioning to a clean energy economy. A comprehensive re-engineering of the way we use and generate electricity may very well be the most economically prudent choice. For every unit of coal which is phased from the US electricity economy, we avoid both extensive social damages as well as the requirement to remediate those damages through high-cost patchwork environmental controls."


What is beyond "Business as Usual" when it comes to generating electricity in the U.S.?

A major 2010 Synapse report for the Civil Society Institute developed a "Transition Scenario" for 2010- 2050 that would provide the following benefits:

Aggressive investments in more efficient technologies in every sector could reduce electricity use by 15 percent from today's requirements, or over 40 percent from a "business as usual" scenario. Utilities in several states are already achieving savings at this level.
The U.S. could feasibly retire the entire fleet of coal-fired plants and build no new coal-fired generation, rather than burning more coal. Tens of billions could be saved in avoided pollution control costs at the coal-fired plants retired between 2010 and 2020. At the same time, we could retire 28 percent of the nation's nuclear capacity.
Electric sector emissions of carbon dioxide would fall by roughly 82 percent relative to predicted 2010 levels. Emissions of SO2, NOx, and mercury fall in the BAU Case, as new emission controls are installed at coal-fired plants, but they fall much more in the Transition Scenario. Emissions of NOx fall by 60 percent over the study period, and emissions of SO2 fall by 97 percent. Electric sector mercury emissions are virtually eliminated.
Renewable energy, including wind, solar, geothermal and biomass, would increase throughout the nation, eventually providing half of the nation's electricity requirements. Natural gas use in the electric sector would grow more slowly than under business as usual, leaving more gas for clean cars and other uses.
There would be modest near-term costs of the scenario, but over the long term it would cost less than a business as usual energy future. The scenario would cost an estimated $10 billion per year more than the BAU in 2020, but it would save $5 billion annually by 2040 and $13 billion annually by 2050. These are direct costs only; they do not include savings resulting from reduced CO2 emissions or public health costs. (A recent National Academies study estimated the annual health impacts of power generation in the U.S. at $62 billion in 2005.) For a typical residential consumer, purchasing about 900 kWh per month, the 2020 cost increase would amount to about $2.20 per month. By 2040, the same customer would be saving about $1.50 per month and by 2050, saving nearly $4.00 per month.

The full text of the Civil Society Institute reports prepared by Synapse Energy Economics are available online at http:///


Based in Newton, MA., the nonprofit and nonpartisan Civil Society Institute ( is a think tank that serves as a catalyst for change by creating problem-solving interactions among people, and between communities, government and business that can help to improve society. Since 2003, CSI has conducted more than 25 major national and state-level surveys and reports on energy and auto issues, including vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, consumer demand for hybrids/other highly-fuel efficient vehicles, global warming and renewable energy. In addition to being a co-convener of (, the Civil Society Institute also is the parent organization of ( and the Hybrid Owners of America (

Synapse Energy Economics, Inc. ( provides research, testimony, reports and regulatory support on energy, economic, and environmental topics. Synapse has a professional staff of 22 with more than 300 years of combined experience in the electricity and natural gas industries. Synapse assesses the implications of electricity and natural gas industry planning, regulation and restructuring. Their work covers various interrelated issues such as transmission planning, service reliability, siting, fuel diversity, resource planning, financial and economic risks, renewable energy potential and renewable portfolio standards, energy efficiency, electricity modeling, portfolio management, customer service and more. Synapse works for a wide range of clients throughout the United States, including attorneys general, offices of consumer advocates, public utility commissions, a variety of environmental groups, foundations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, Department of Justice, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, and others.

CONTACT: Leslie Anderson, (703) 276-3256 or