Air Pollution Cost Approaches $1 trillion in the West

by John Brian Shannon
(Originally published at JBSnews.com)

Air pollution has a very real cost to our civilization via increased healthcare costs, premature deaths, lowered productivity, environmental degradation with resultant lowered crop yields, increased water consumption and higher taxation.

However, air pollution is only one cost associated with fossil fuel use.

There are three main costs associated with energy

  1. The retail price that you pay at the gas pump or on your utility bill for example
    (which is paid by consumers)
  2. The subsidy cost that governments pay energy producers and utility companies
    (which is ultimately paid by taxpayers)
  3. The externality cost of each type of energy
    (which is paid by taxpayers, by increased prices for consumers, and the impact on, or the ‘cost to’ the environment)

Externality cost in Europe and the U.S.A.

A recent report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) states that high air pollution levels (one type of externality) in the EU cost society €189 billion every year and it’s a number that increases every year. (That’s $235 billion when converted to U.S. dollars)

To put that number in some kind of context, the cost of the air pollution externality in the EU annually, is equal to the GDP of Finland.

Let’s state that even more clearly. The amount of taxation paid by EU taxpayers every year to pay for airborne fossil fuel damage is equal to Finland’s entire annual economic output!

It’s getting worse, not better, notwithstanding recent renewable energy programs and incentives. Even the admirable German Energiewende program is barely making an impact when we look at the overall EU air quality index.

“Of the 30 biggest facilities it identified as causing the most damage, 26 were power plants, mainly fueled by coal in Germany and eastern Europe.” — Barbara Lewis (Reuters)

That’s just Europe. It’s even worse in the U.S., according to a landmark Harvard University report which says coal-fired power generation (externality cost alone) costs the U.S. taxpayer over $500 billion/yr.

“Each stage in the life cycle of coal—extraction, transport, processing, and combustion—generates a waste stream and carries multiple hazards for health and the environment. These costs are external to the coal industry and thus are often considered as “externalities.”

We estimate that the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually.

Many of these so-called externalities are, moreover, cumulative.

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.

We focus on Appalachia, though coal is mined in other regions of the United States and is burned throughout the world.” — Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal by Dr. Paul Epstein, the Director of Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment, and eleven other co-authors

The report also notes that electricity costs would need to rise by another .09 to .27 cents per kilowatt hour in the U.S. to cover the externality cost of American coal-fired electricity production.

The externality cost for solar or wind power plants is zero, just for the record

Dr. Epstein and his team notes: “Coal burning produces one and a half times the CO2 emissions of oil combustion and twice that from burning natural gas (for an equal amount of energy produced).”

There’s the argument to switch from coal to natural gas right there

Also in the Harvard report in regards to the intrinsic inefficiency of coal: “Energy specialist Amory Lovins estimates that after mining, processing, transporting and burning coal, and transmitting the electricity, only about 3% of the energy in the coal is used in incandescent light bulbs.”

“…In the United States in 2005, coal produced 50% of the nation’s electricity but 81% of the CO2 emissions.

For 2030, coal is projected to produce 53% of U.S. power and 85% of the U.S. CO2 emissions from electricity generation.

None of these figures includes the additional life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from coal, including methane from coal mines, emissions from coal transport, other GHG emissions (e.g., particulates or black carbon), and carbon and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from land transformation in the case of MTR coal mining.” — Harvard University’s Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal report

It’s not like this information is secret. All European, American, and Asian policymakers now know about the externality costs of coal vs. renewable energy. It’s just that until recently everyone thought that the cost of switching to renewable energy, was higher than the cost of fossil externalities.

It’s not only an economic problem, it’s also a health problem

“Air pollution impacts human health, resulting in extra healthcare costs, lost productivity, and fewer work days. Other impacts are reduced crop yields and building damage.

Particulate matter and ground-level ozone are two of the main pollutants that come from coal.

90% or more of Europeans living in cities are exposed to harmful air pollution. Bulgaria and Poland have some of the worst pollution of the European countries.

An estimated 400,000 premature deaths in European cities were linked to air pollution in 2011.” — CleanTechnica

Externality cost in China

Remember the Beijing Olympics where the city’s industry and commercial business were shut down to allow visitors and athletes to breathe clean air during their stay (and Wow!) look at their clear blue sky for the first time in decades. Great for tourists! Bad for Beijing business and industry, with the exception of the tourism industry (for one month) of course.

The Common Language Project reported in 2008 that premature deaths in China resulting from fossil fuel air pollution were surpassing 400,000 per year.

“China faces a number of serious environmental issues caused by overpopulation and rapid industrial growth. Water pollution and a resulting shortage of drinking water is one such issue, as is air pollution caused by an over-reliance on coal as fuel. It has been estimated that 410,000 Chinese die as a result of pollution each year.” clpmag.org

The die is cast since it is becoming common knowledge that renewable energy merely requires a small subsidy to assist with power plant construction and grid harmonization — while fossil fuels continue to require truly massive and ongoing subsidies to continue operations.

Subsidy cost of fossil fuels

Already there is talk of ending fossil fuel producer subsidies, which in 2014 will top $600 billion worldwide

Want to add up the total costs (direct economic subsidy and externality cost subsidy) of fossil fuels?

Add the $600 billion global fossil fuel subsidy to the to the $2 trillion dollars of global externality cost and you arrive at (approx) $2.5 trillion dollars per year. Then there is the more than 1 million premature deaths globally caused by air pollution. All of that is subsidized by the world’s taxpayers.

Compare that to the total costs of renewable energy. Well, for starters, the economic subsidy dollar amount for renewable energy is much less (about $100 billion per year globally) and there are no externality costs.

No deaths. No illness. No direct or related productivity loss due to a host of fossil fuel related issues (oil spills, coal car derailment, river contamination, explosions in pipelines or factories) for just a very few examples.

The fossil fuel industry is a very mature industry, it has found ways to do more with ever-fewer employees, and it gets more subsidy dollars than any other economic segment on the planet.

By comparison, the renewable energy industry is a new segment, one that requires many thousands of workers and it gets only relative handfuls of subsidy dollars. And, no externalities.

It becomes clearer every day that high carbon fossil electricity power production must be displaced by renewable energy

No longer is it some arcane moral argument that we should switch to renewables for the good of the Earth; Fossil fuel is proving to be a major factor in human illness/premature deaths, it sends our money abroad to purchase energy instead of keeping our money in our own countries, and the wholly-taxpayer-funded subsidy cost of fossil is out of control and getting worse with each passing year.

The time for dithering is past. It’s time to make the switch to renewable energy, and to start, we need to remove the worst polluting power plants from the grid (and at the very least, replace them with natural gas powered plants) or even better, replace them with hybrid wind and solar power plants.

To accomplish this, governments need to begin diverting some of the tens of billions of dollars annually paid to the fossil fuel industry to the renewable energy industry.

Germany’s Energiewende program was (and still is) an admirable first step. Once Germany has completed it’s energy transition away from oil, coal and nuclear — having replaced all of that generation capacity with renewable energy and natural gas, only then can it be hailed a complete success — and German leaders should go down in history as being instrumental in changing the world’s 21st century energy paradigm.

Dank an unsere deutschen Freunde! (With thanks to our German friends!)

If only every nation would sign-on to matching or exceeding the ongoing German example, we wouldn’t have 1 million premature deaths globally due to fossil fuel burning, we wouldn’t have almost 2 trillion dollars of externality cost, we wouldn’t need $600 billion dollars of direct subsidies for fossil fuel producers — and we would all live in a healthier environment, and our plant, animal, and aquatic life would return to their normally thriving state.

Taxes would reflect the global $2.5 trillion drop in combined fossil fuel subsidy and fossil fuel externality costs, employment stats would improve, productivity would increase, the tourism industry would receive a boost, and enjoyment of life for individuals would rebound.

It’s a truism in the energy industry that all energy is subsidized, of that there is no doubt. Even renewable energy receives tiny amounts of subsidy, relative to fossil.

But it is now apparent that over the past 100 years, getting ‘the best (energy) bang for the buck’ has been our nemesis. The energy world that we once knew, is about to change.

The world didn’t come to an end when air travel began to replace rail travel in the 1950’s. Now almost everyone travels by air, and only few travel by train.

And what about the railway investors didn’t they lose their money when the age of rail tapered-off? No, they simply moved their money to the new transportation mode and made as much or more money in the airline business.

Likewise, the world will not come to an end now that renewable energy is beginning to displace coal and oil. Investors will simply reallocate their money and make as much or more money in renewable energy.

European Electric Vehicle Sales up 79% from 2013

by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

What a difference a year makes. Electric Vehicles, once a novelty in Europe, seem to have hit the mainstream. No doubt there is still plenty of room to grow as even with the latest sales increase, EV’s only make up only a tiny fraction of the annual 7 million car sales in the European Union.

Overall, EV sales in Europe are up 79% from the same time period last year, although within individual nations there are wide disparities in EV adoption.

NORWAY — Although Norway is not an EU-member-country, it is part of Europe. And the earliest adopter of electric vehicles in Europe is Norway, registering only 2373 EV sales in the first half of 2013.

Now compare that to the 9950 EV sales Norway logged in the first half of 2014. That’s a 302% increase H1 2013 to H1 2014. In a country of only 5 million people that’s a pretty significant sign that EV’s are gaining wider acceptance.

TESLA has just completed the installation of dozens of free-to-use SuperCharger stations in Norway and you can find them in almost every Norwegian city, town and hamlet. A big draw with the SuperCharger system is that a Tesla Model S can fully charge in about 30 minutes from dead flat. Of course, if you’re just ’topping-up’ your Tesla battery you may not have time to finish your latte before you’re on the road again.

Prior to the latest SuperCharger installations, it took some careful driving to drive the length of Norway and not run the battery down, but one can now drive across the entire country of Norway with hardly a thought about charging locations, all of which are easily located on the huge Tesla LED dashboard display.

The most popular EV’s in Norway are the Tesla Model S and the Nissan LEAF.

GERMANY – Posting respectable numbers but nowhere near the example set by Norway, EU-member-nation Germany has almost doubled their first half EV sales compared to the same time period in 2013. German’s bought 2382 EV’s in H1 of last year, ramping up to 4230 in H1 of this year.

United Kingdom — Another European country that is still not part of the EU, the UK registered 1168 EV’s in H1 of 2013, and in H1 of 2014 some 2570 EV’s were registered.

Both the German and UK drivers prefer the Tesla Model S, the BMWi3 and the Nissan LEAF, although the new Renault Zoe is gaining acceptance as a very affordable electric vehicle.

FRANCE – French citizens buy a lot of EV’s, but numbers were slightly down compared to last year. Still, Renault continues to add affordable new EV models to its lineup. In 2013, there must have been a lot of ‘pent-up’ EV demand, as France registered 7293 EV’s in H1 of 2013, but in H1 of this year France added only 6405 Electric Vehicles to the country’s roads.

The most popular EV’s in France are the Renault Twizy, the new Renault Zoe and the Nissan LEAF.

Electric Vehicle sales soar in Europe as petrol prices move past E1,84 per litre.
Electric Vehicle sales soar in Europe as petrol prices move past € 1,89 per litre in some jurisdictions. Image courtesy of CleanTechnica.

While some countries in the EU could not match (non-EU-member) Norway’s total EV sales, some statistically significant numbers are showing for some EU nations.

The Netherlands for one, zipped up from 437 EV sales in the first half of 2013, to 1149 units in the first half of this year. While Austria went from 252 to 709 H1 to H1 and Belgium went from a lowish 195 first half EV sales up to 629 in H1 of 2014.

As far as the top electric cars, they were the Nissan Leaf (7,109), Tesla Model S (5,330), and Renault Zoe (3,669). Tesla Model S sales were largely in Norway (over 3,000 there), while Renault Zoe sales were largely in France (over 1,600 there). – CleanTechnica.com

All in all, some respectable increases with only France as the spoiler in the Year-on-Year H1 comparison.

Here are the total registrations for H1 2013 and H1 2014.

  • TOTAL EV sales all EU countries (first half of 2013) — 15591
  • TOTAL EV sales all EU countries (first half of 2014) — 27946
  • TOTAL EV sales increase all EU countries year-on-year (first half comparison) — 79%

Even with all that good news, it’s important to remember that while EV sales are showing dramatic improvements in some European nations, electric vehicles have not yet reached 1% of new car sales.

The one bright spot, now that more EV’s are hitting the roads is that public charging stations are being installed at at phenomenal rate. The Netherlands public charging system is geared to a maximum travel distance of 65 kilometres between chargers. That puts electric vehicles on an even footing with petrol stations in the country.

And, unlike a petrol car, you can always charge your car at home or at the office just by plugging it in to an ordinary wall socket, although this slow-charging mode may take a few hours.

Another positive is that affordable new EV models are hitting showrooms, giving drivers more choices and a wider range of electric vehicles to choose from. With names like Tesla, BMW, Toyota, Nissan, Renault, Volvo, Ford and Porsche solidly behind electrified vehicles, reliability issues are non-existent.

Here are some fun facts for European residents to ponder when considering the switch from a petrol engine car to an electric vehicle.

Here are the petrol prices per litre for some selected European nations, as of August 11, 2014:

  1. Austria — € 1,35
  2. Belgium — € 1,61
  3. Denmark — € 1,71
  4. Finland — € 1,63
  5. Germany — € 1,62
  6. Netherlands — € 1,79
  7. Norway — € 1,89
  8. Portugal — € 1,62
  9. Sweden — € 1,55
  10. United Kingdom — € 1,61

To convert these per litre prices, valued in euros – into their U.S. equivalents, we can use the very rough calculation of 4 litres per US gallon (which is how petrol/gasoline is sold in the United States) and 1.33 USD to 1 euro (current as of August 11, 2014).

For the Norwegian example, we can see that 4 litres of petrol (to roughly equal 1 US gallon) will cost you 7.57 euros – and converting that to US dollars gives you $10.14 per US gallon. Many US citizens use 10 gallons of petrol (or more) every day…

In Austria 1 US gallon of petrol (rough calculation) will set you back $7.18 in US dollars.

For those who elect to charge their EV at home for about 1-3 euros per day, you will have no need to stop at a petrol station and pay up to € 1,89 per litre of petrol, times how many litres you burn per day. And it’s doubtful that petrol prices will be dropping any time soon.

Not only are EV’s pollution-free, reliable and extremely low maintenance – spending 1-3 euros per day to recharge your EV battery at home (or nothing if you charge it at a free-to-use public charging station) vs. 5-10 euros per day for petrol depending on the size of the petrol engine – can really add up over the course of a year.

I strongly suspect that 2015 EV sales numbers will greatly surpass these first impressive baby-steps taken by electric vehicle manufacturers and their customers. By 2020, it would be reasonable to expect a full 10% of new vehicle registrations to be of the electrified vehicle variety.

Sustainable Energy Policy to save EU €81 bn/year by 2030

by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

Accenture says a sustainable pan-European energy policy could save consumers €27 to €81 billion per year by 2030 and result in a cleaner utility grid model.
Accenture says a sustainable energy policy could save European electricity consumers €27 to €81 billion per year by 2030.

A recent report authoured by Accenture for EURELECTRIC says that if European nations work together towards an integrated and pan-European energy policy it could generate savings for electricity consumers between €27 to €81 billion per year by 2030 and the result would be a cleaner utility grid model.

Accenture is calling on European governments to phase-out renewable energy targets and renewable energy programme spending — replacing both with a carbon trading scheme, one that essentially rewards low carbon energy producers and penalizes high carbon energy producers.

All of this is happening during a time of unprecedented change within the European energy industry.

In the fascinating German example, that country shut down much of its nuclear power generation rather than spend multi-billions to upgrade its aging and oft-troubled nuclear fleet. Consequently, Germany is now burning record amounts of coal and natural gas to replace that lost generation capacity — in addition to the installation of record amounts of wind, solar and biomass capacities to the German grid.

In the decades following WWII, German utility companies operated in a cozy, sheltered environment. But few knew how expensive it was to operate and maintain on account of massive government subsidies and preferential treatment of the utility industry. German consumers never had it so good and likewise for sleepy German energy giants, which have now awoken to find that the energy picture has changed dramatically in little over a decade.

Hence, even more subsidies were employed to counter for the loss of German nuclear power via Feed-in-Tariffs (FiT) for wind, solar and biomass capacity additions to the grid, partially financed by a hefty nuclear decommissioning fee added to every German electricity bill.

At least in Germany, it turns out that while nuclear has practically disappeared, and with no fuel costs to worry about, renewable energy combined to lower German electricity rates during the hours of the day that wind and solar are active, causing downward pressure on electricity rates. At the same time, German utilities burned record amounts of brown coal and expensive Russian natural gas to meet total demand which caused upward spikes in the electricity rate during the hours of the day that coal and natural gas were required to meet total demand.

In simple terms, the removal of nuclear from the German energy mix has resulted in higher electricity rates — not because some of that capacity was replaced by renewable energy — but because significant fossil fuel burning was required to meet demand, combined with nuclear decommissioning costs.

Were German politicians and their voters wrong to shut down the country’s nuclear power plants? Not a bit. Germany’s nuclear power plants were problem-plagued and the costs to bring all 19 reactors up to modern standards were prohibitive. Shutting down the German nuclear fleet was unfortunate perhaps, but necessary.

German consumers continue to yearn for clean energy and low energy costs. Unsurprisingly, the German public has reacted to energy that seems to be getting dirtier and more expensive by the day, and the massive nuclear decommissioning costs which will continue long past 2022, perhaps until 2045.

After the loss of nuclear, the German energy grid initially became cleaner with the addition of wind and solar, but then became dirtier than ever as record amounts of brown coal and natural gas were burned! Es ist zum weinen.

And that’s just the story in Germany. Every European partner country has its own story to tell in an electricity market that is undergoing unprecedented and rapid change — and each country’s electricity market is as different from each other as they are from the German example. Although each story is different, the net result is the same; The energy industry across Europe must adapt to the loss of (some) nuclear and the growing consumer disenchantment with fossil fuels, and to the huge consumer driven additions of renewable energy to the grid. And it must be done in a cost-effective way or utility companies and their respective governments will face consumer backlash.

Utility companies shocked by the unprecedented and rapid changes thrust upon them by nuclear shutdowns and the multiple demands of consumers are hoping that a harmonized set of rules across Europe will allow them to meet rising electricity demand.

If you look at what utilities really want, it is one harmonized set of rules across Europe. Europe is one market; it’s one playing field, and utilities really benefit from a harmonized set of rules.

It is like playing football; if you play football,you don’t want different rules for different parts of the field. — Sander van Ginkel, Managing Director, Accenture Utilities

“European electricity prices are rising fast. As a result, the overall increase in energy expenditure is putting mounting pressure on residential end-users and undermining the competitiveness of European industry. The implementation of the energy transition has so far lacked optimization on a pan-European scale. Without a concerted effort to more effectively manage the costs of the energy transition, expenditure on electricity and gas in 2030 could be 50 percent higher than it is today.

A step-change in the reshaping of the European energy system is needed — by reconfirming the European power sector’s support for Europe’s sustainability agenda through an optimized approach that avoids unnecessary costs. Doing so would put significant benefits within reach: our analysis shows that implementing an integrated set of levers could generate net savings of €27 to €81 billion per year by 2030. Such savings could be achieved by further integrating energy markets and the supporting regulatory framework at a European level and by leveraging flexibility throughout the electricity value chain — provided utilities, governments, regulators and consumers can forge a joint commitment to work together.” — Quoted from the Accenture/EURELECTRIC report

Accenture’s report says that Europe’s utilities must meet customer demands for more energy, but make it cheaper and cleaner and that the existing grid model will fail unless changes are made. Accenture has suggested four main ways to achieve these goals.

  1. Optimizing renewable energy systems
  2. Market integration
  3. Active system management
  4. Demand response and energy saving

“The restructuring of the European electricity system will have to be carried out cost-effectively if we are to gain the support and trust of energy consumers. This study shows that, with the right policies in place, the energy transition could cost each European citizen over € 100 less a year than if we continue with business as usual.” Hans ten BERGE Secretary General. Union of the Electricity Industry – EURELECTRIC

It seems reasonable that all of Europe’s utility companies acting together could arrive at a better solution. Complementary and overlapping energy capabilities may prove to be the model that works for Europe, as opposed to the direct competition model favoured in the U.S.

A carbon tax which reflects the true societal costs of fossil fuels could be a just solution to Europe’s present grid malaise. However, it is doubtful that a carbon tax will ever reflect the true cost to society of fossil fuels — which have been estimated to cost €30 per tonne of CO2 — but a carbon mechanism may well provide the impetus to foster a new and better European energy paradigm.

No matter the how the equation looks, it is sometimes only the answer that matters. A cleaner energy mix and reasonable electricity rates within a stable electricity grid is something that all sides can cheer for. How very European!

See the Accenture video (click here)