Hundred-million year-old sunlight has heated our homes and powered our factories for decades. Today, that energy is delivered less often by the friendly neighborhood coal man and more by the ubiquitous electrical grid: About 39 percent of US electricity is generated by burning coal. All that combustion carries a cost, though, as the carbon previously trapped underground in long-dead plants becomes greenhousing carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere.
But damage to the climate is not the end of coal’s costs. In 2011, a group of researchers from around the country attempted to calculate that number. They examined the full cost of coal’s “lifecycle” in the United States—that is, the costs of everything that mining coal, transporting it, burning it for electricity, and disposing it does to the world. The researchers included economists from Accenture, doctors and public health researchers from Harvard University, and ecologists from universities throughout West Virginia.
They looked at everything: the damage to the climate, to people’s health, and to the plants and animals around the mines. In the end, they estimated that the sum total of coal’s externalities amounted to between 9.42 cents and 26.89 cents per kilowatt-hour. Their best guess put it at 17.84 cents. The United States’ dependence on coal cost the public “a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually,” they wrote.