Coal is cheap, except when it costs $500 billion

Coal is the cheapest fuel for electricity – if you spin it right and ignore the costs of coal-related waste, health problems and environmental damage.

That’s the gist of a new report saying coal really costs the U.S. public as much as half a trillion dollars annually. If true, that is equivalent to adding 27 cents per kWh to the market cost of coal-fired electricity (2008 dollars). This perspective strengthens the case for renewables.

“Accounting for the damages conservatively doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh generated, making wind, solar, and other forms of non-fossil fuel power generation, along with investments in efficiency and electricity conservation methods, economically competitive,” says the report in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences titled “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal.”

Hidden costs of coal-fired electricity include mining deaths, climate damage, cleanup, health-care, rail fatalities, acid rain, harmful algal blooms, retardation, subsidies, abandoned lands and the “energy penalty” of carbon capture and storage (CCS). Coal is the predominant fuel for electricity generation worldwide, generating 40 percent of electricity (2005) and responsible for 30 percent of worldwide CO2 emissions.

Perhaps this information could somehow help the behavioral scientists, neuro-economists, environmental scientists and others at the Climate, Mind and Behavior SymposiumThey are trying to figure out how to take our intellectual understanding of the climate threat and get people to actually change their behaviors.

Part of the challenge “has been the assumption that science and logic will suffice in making the case for changes in human behavior,” blogs the New York Times. In the real world, gut instincts, friends and personal passions also play a role. ( has a nice overview of day one here.)