A new study published in Nature Sustainability has calculated that the recent shutdown of coal power plants in favor of natural gas has saved 26,000 lives due to reduced air pollution. If validated, it means that the natural gas revolution that has brought America energy independence for the first time in 75 years has both reduced greenhouse gas emissions and saved lives.
While there are some political factors, the real rise of natural gas and decline in coal is due to good old-fashioned free-market competition with reduced pollution and lives saved as possible beneficial side-effects.
Does the study stack up to reality? There is one issue: The closed coal plants were old. Comparing outdated coal technology with the latest natural gas technology is unfair because there are plenty of modern, clean coal technologies (CCT).
This new generation of coal power plants is just as clean as natural gas and switching to it would produce the same environmental benefits. The reason such a switch has not occurred is, mostly, because natural gas is cheaper.
The second issue with the study is the assumption that tiny amounts of particles from coal power plants cause disease and death. This suffers from the same faulty Linear No-Threshold-theory that has plagued nuclear power. Everyone understands that if someone drops a piano on your head from the fifth floor, you will certainly die.
If you drop something smaller, it reduces the risk, and at some point, you might find that there is a linear relationship between the mass and the risk of death. That’s not unreasonable, but what about a grain of sand dropped on your head? Can that ever kill you? According to the linear theory, there is a tiny chance but, in practice, there is a threshold below which any pollutant or toxin becomes harmless.
Maybe the switch to natural gas really did save 26,000 lives, but it is crucial to understand that the number is theoretical and the underlying assumptions may be flawed.
Still Life In Coal
Although natural gas is gaining ground, there is still plenty of life left in coal. In many regions, it makes more economic sense to utilize coal. In some cases, additional cleaning costs are even an advantage.