Study: Replacing coal plants with natural gas cut pollution, saved lives

Fracking pollution not included in study; could lessen health benefits, author says

  • Reid Frazier

A new study found closing hundreds of coal fired power plants and replacing them with natural gas plants saved thousands of lives around the country.

Jen Burney, an environmental engineer at the University of California, San Diego, analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with air pollution data in counties where power plants either closed down or opened up between 2005 and 2016.

Over that time period, more than 300 coal-fired generating units at 138 plants were taken down. These were replaced largely by more than 600 natural-gas-fired units put online.

Burney found the switch resulted in an estimated 26,610 fewer deaths around the country,

“Insofar as it’s driven coal plants out of business, for the people living nearby, it’s been sort of an unmitigated bonus,” Burney said.

Nick Muller, an economist and engineer at Carnegie Mellon University said the study shows how beneficial it can be to turn off coal-fired power plants, which emit more particle pollution than the natural gas plants that have largely replaced them. Small particles in the air kill about 100,000 people a year in the U.S., mainly from increased incidence of heart attack, stroke, and other diseases, according to one recent study.

“It emphasizes the fact that coal-fired power generation generates or produces lots of external effects,” Muller said.

The study, published in Nature Sustainability, only compared natural gas and coal at the level of power plant emissions. If the pollution from fracking were taken into effect, Burney said, that may lessen the health benefits of using natural gas.

“So the impacts of extraction and flaring may in fact even swamp the…downstream effects,” Burney said.

A recent paper by several Carnegie Mellon researchers, including Muller, found “upstream” air pollution from natural gas extraction — that is, before the gas is burned at a power plant — was responsible for an estimated 1,200 to 4,600 premature deaths in the Appalachian basin between 2004 and 2016.

Burney’s paper also found that switching from coal to natural gas had impacts on agriculture and climate. Air pollution reductions made in the switch improved crop yields by an estimated 570 million bushels. But eliminating that pollution also had a less-appreciated impact on local climate. Since particles generated by burning coal block out sunlight, eliminating some of those particles actually increased warming in areas where coal plants shut down over that time period, the study found.

Mark Z. Jacobson, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Stanford, said both coal and natural gas also pose climate problems. Coal produces more carbon dioxide than natural gas, but gas allows for more of the potent greenhouse gas methane to leak into the atmosphere. Keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the target set by the UN to avoid runaway climate change, is getting harder and harder to do, new research shows.

“We should eliminate both and transition to clean, renewable energy, like solar and wind and geothermal hydroelectric power, because they eliminate both the health and the climate problems,” Jacobson said.

 

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