My watch list  

Clean energy least costly to power America’s electricity needs

Findings show carbon pollution from power plants can be cut cost-effectively by using wind, solar and natural gas


It’s less costly to get electricity from wind turbines and solar panels than coal-fired power plants when climate change costs and other health impacts are factored in, according to a new study published in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.

In fact—using the official U.S. government estimates of health and environmental costs from burning fossil fuels—the study shows 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.

“Burning coal is a very costly way to make electricity. There are more efficient and sustainable ways to get power,” said Dr. Laurie Johnson, chief economist in the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We can reduce health and climate change costs while reducing the dangerous carbon pollution driving global warming.”

Johnson co-authored the study, “The Social Cost of Carbon: Implications for Modernizing our Electricity System,” with Chris Hope of the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge; and Starla Yeh in NRDC’s Center for Market Innovation. Power plants are the nation’s single largest source of such pollution, accounting for 40 percent of our national carbon footprint.

"And yet, there are no federal limits on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants may release," said Johnson. "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."

President Obama has vowed to do that, using his authority under the Clean Air Act to set the first federal limits on the amount of carbon pollution power plants may release. Critics claim that could raise costs. But, in fact, it can reduce the total cost of electricity generation, the new study finds.

Carbon pollution imposes economic costs by damaging public health and driving destructive climate change. Working together, the White House Office of Management and Budget, the Treasury Department, the Department of Energy and eight other federal agencies put a dollar value on those damages, in an official figure called the “social cost of carbon” (SCC).

The SCC is used to calculate the benefits (i.e., avoided climate damages) of carbon pollution reduction. The administration puts the best estimate at $33 per ton of carbon pollution emitted in 2010.

The study also included government damage estimates from sulfur dioxide, a pollutant released simultaneously with carbon. Every year, sulfur dioxide causes thousands of premature deaths, respiratory ailments, heart disease and a host of ecosystem damages.

“Already, climate change is contributing to record heat waves, floods, drought, wildfires and severe storms,” Johnson said. Such extreme weather caused more than $140 billion in damages in 2012. American taxpayers picked up nearly $100 billion of those costs, according to an NRDC report released in May, 2013.

“These damages are only likely to increase if nothing is done to reduce carbon pollution,” concluded Johnson.

Facts, background information, dossiers
  • University of Cambridge
More about University of Cambridge
  • News

    A tight squeeze for electrons

    Researchers have observed quantum effects in electrons by squeezing them into one-dimensional ‘quantum wires’ and observing the interactions between them. The results could be used to aid in the development of quantum technologies, including quantum computing.  Scientists have controlled el ... more

    Nano 'hall of mirrors' causes molecules to mix with light

    When a molecule emits a blink of light, it doesn't expect it to ever come back. However researchers have now managed to place single molecules in such a tiny optical cavity that emitted photons, or particles of light, return to the molecule before they have properly left. The energy oscilla ... more

    Little ANTs: Researchers build the world's tiniest engine

    Researchers have developed the world's tiniest engine - just a few billionths of a metre in size - which uses light to power itself. The nanoscale engine, developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge, could form the basis of future nano-machines that can navigate in water, sense ... more

  • Videos

    Graphene: A 2D materials revolution

    Graphene is a two-dimensional material made up of sheets of carbon atoms. With its combination of exceptional electrical, mechanical and thermal properties, graphene has the potential to revolutionise industries ranging from healthcare to electronics. more

    Where there’s muck there’s aluminium (if not brass)

    Technology developed in Cambridge at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology lies at the heart of a commercial process that can turn toothpaste tubes and drinks pouches into both aluminium and fuel in just three minutes. The process recycles a form of packaging – plastic-al ... more

    Nanomaterials Up Close: Gum Arabic

    This alien glob is a piece of gum arabic from the hardened sap of the Acacia tree, most likely collected from a tree in Sudan. Rox Middleton, from the University of Cambridge, explains how the electron microscope has changed the way we are able to interact with objects at the nanoscale, all ... more

More about Springer-Verlag
Your browser is not current. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 does not support some functions on Chemie.DE