Donald Trump’s bailout plan for the country’s failing coal-fired generating stations will cause one additional death for every 4.5 coal mining jobs it props up, according to modelling released last week by the non-profit Resources for the Future.
Based on “conservative assumptions,” said RFF Visiting Fellow and lead author Daniel Shawhan, the bailout “would cause an estimated 353 to 815 additional premature deaths in the United States from power plant sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.” That’s based on delaying about 7,800 megawatts of coal closures, representing all but two of the plants scheduled to shut down between 2018 and 2020, at least until 2021. RFF also foresees life extensions for 1,100 MW of nuclear capacity.
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“The result would be an extra 38 terawatt-hours of electricity from coal and 17 additional terawatt-hours of nuclear generation—along with a 53 terawatt-hour reduction in power from natural gas, according to the analysis,” Bloomberg reports. “Although nuclear power does not generate carbon dioxide that drives climate change, burning coal does—and the possible federal intervention would boost those emissions by 22 million short tons over two years, the analysis finds.”
The ensuing health impacts are already on display in Yorktown, Virginia, where two obsolete coal plants are “limping along” and churning out peak power as the state copes with the summer heat, InsideClimate News reports.
“Inefficient, uncompetitive, out of compliance with federal pollution standards, and long slated for retirement, the Yorktown boilers have been fired back up intermittently since last year,” InsideClimate states. “At the moment, Yorktown is the only generating station in the country where power is being supplied by coal plants on an emergency basis to preserve the grid’s reliability.” But that could soon change, if Trump carries through with his plan to support coal generation under arcane provisions of the U.S. Federal Power Act and Defense Production Act.
The ICN report acknowledges that the production in Virginia is needed in the here and now, with an early summer heat wave spiking the region’s electricity demand to 44,557 megawatts, its highest since last August.
But “as the power plants at Yorktown dealt with the demand, they increased the region’s pollution burden, pumping out not only mercury and other unhealthy pollutants, but also adding steadily to the carbon dioxide layer that warms the planet—and causes more heat waves in the long run,” writes reporter John H. Cushman Jr. At full power, each of Yorktown’s two coal units “put out more than 130 tons of carbon dioxide an hour, hundreds to thousands of pounds of sulphur dioxide an hour, various forms of smog and soot, and smaller but still harmful levels of lead and mercury, among other pollutants.”
Moreover, “whatever the pollution consequences, it has proven dicey to treat these plants as a reliable source of power. Both units operated all right in May. But in early June, one of them ‘suffered an unexpected failure of a critical component,’” according to utility Dominion Power, and had to go out of service.
The bigger picture is that the Yorktown coal plants are no longer competitive with cleaner alternatives, notwithstanding Trump’s apparent determination to distort the electricity market.
“It had been clear for a long time that market pressures and environmental controls had been pushing utilities to shut down the worst coal plants,” Cushman writes. “Dominion Power was no exception. It announced in 2012 that it would close Yorktown rather than invest in new pollution controls on mercury, a toxic pollutant that causes brain damage, developmental disorders, and other ailments.” By now, the plants are only competitive when extreme weather drives up demand, and independent market analysis shows the utility will face cost, reliability, and pollution problems if it keeps the older-than-average generators in its inventory.
“In addition to the harmful emissions associated with operation of Yorktown 1 and 2, these units come with high costs and are poorly-suited to provide reliability benefits,” stated researchers at Synapse Energy Economics.