Air pollution from fossil-fuel-burning power plants causes severe health problems and other high costs to society. This week, Minnesota has the rare opportunity to update the dollar value of air pollution costs state regulators use, thereby ensuring that the impacts of air pollution are more fully accounted for when electricity companies propose future power plants.
This action is crucial to make transparent the accurate cost to our health and climate of future energy investment — before we make those decisions — and to evaluate these together with the capital and fuel expenditures of future energy. If we undervalue the health and environmental impacts in energy planning, we risk building power plants that pollute more than necessary. And we would live with the negative consequences of those choices for decades.
Pollution from power plants costs Minnesota at least $2.1 billion each year in real health and climate impacts, and these costs are rising year by year. But we don’t pay these costs on our utility bills — we pay them through increased impacts on health and the other costs of global warming. The positive news is that Minnesota has been accounting for some of the social costs of burning fossil fuels since 1993. We are proud that incorporating the real costs of air pollution and climate change into energy planning decisions is bipartisan policy in our state.
Minnesota first set the cost values of generating electricity back in 1997. But there has not been a substantive update of those planning quantities in 20 years. Meanwhile, evidence of the social costs of burning fossil fuels has increased exponentially. The scientific literature on the damages to our health and climate from air pollution and the data published in peer-reviewed medical journals have provided well-documented evidence of the real human impacts of fossil-fueled power plants.
Air pollution affects Minnesotans every day through higher health care costs; lost workdays and reduced productivity; damage to crops; and school absences for children suffering from pollution-related conditions. Peer-reviewed studies show that hundreds of thousands of Americans die every year from exposure to air pollution. Burning coal, for example, releases air pollution that triggers more frequent asthma attacks, worsens chronic lung diseases, and can cause heart attacks and strokes.
Scientific studies from many academic centers have linked air pollution from burning fossil fuels to nervous system damage in humans, including learning disabilities and behavioral disorders in children and dementia in adults. Humans are vulnerable to many of the other consequences of global warming. These include increased tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus encephalitis spread by mosquitoes as well as the physical and mental trauma that are often precipitated by weather extremes. Incorporating these health costs into energy planning makes good sense for everyone who breathes.
Minnesotans are already paying real dollars for climate change, such as the expenditures to repair communities and infrastructure after extreme weather events such as the Duluth 2012 flood. The state climatology office confirms that more of our rainfall is coming as very damaging 2- to 3-inch rainstorms, including hailstorms. Home and crop insurance companies are raising their rates to account for these increasing damages. We should also include these real costs in our energy planning.
When regulators at the Public Utilities Commission meet on Thursday, they need to take action. They should update the real health and environmental costs of electricity generation to include the latest impacts of carbon calculated by the U.S. government’s Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases. It is the best estimate of the real cost of burning fossil fuels for electricity. While this official estimate is the best available, most analysts consider it a lower bound of the true overall impacts, because some proven effects are just too hard to translate into dollars.
Only by using scientifically valid dollar figures on the impacts of burning fossil fuels can the state plan wisely and avoid risky electricity investments that would impose unnecessarily large energy costs on Minnesotans. It wouldn’t cost utility customers anything out of pocket, but we would prevent uneconomic investments in power plants that harm our kids’ health and our climate.
Paul Anton, of Edina, is a retired economist. Phillip K. Peterson, of Minneapolis, is an emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota.