Health Costs and Energy Options

Thursday, April 18, 2013

We hear a lot these days about the potential health impacts of wind turbines.  Health Canada has undertaken to review the possible health effects of the proximity of utility-size wind turbines. Overwhelming scientific evidence supports the view that wind turbines are benign neighbours, and at recognized setback distances do not emit enough noise to disturb even the lightest sleeper. However, there have been complaints about wind turbines causing disrupted sleep and headaches. Enough anecdotal evidence to provoke Health Canada to study the entirety of the health impacts of wind turbine proximity to determine their ultimate safety and to make recommendations regarding healthy set back distances.

All energy production comes with a cost. Policy-makers must juggle considerations of risk and reward when weighing these options. In the context of full cost benefit analyses, renewable energies including electricity from wind come out the obvious winners. This past week, Pembina Institute, Canada’s leading independent energy research institute released a study that confirmed the overwhelming high cost of electricity sourced from coal.

The study is based on Alberta’s coal-fired generators, but the results apply equally to Nova Scotia. The findings are so profound and directly relevant that we copy most of the text of their press release below.

EDMONTON — The health impact costs associated with burning coal for electricity in Alberta are close to $300 million annually according to a new report released today by a coalition of Canadian health and environmental groups.

Coal plants are a major source of toxic air contaminants, including mercury, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, and particulate matter. The study shows that in Alberta each year this pollution contributes to over 4,000 asthma episodes, over 700 emergency visits for respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, and around 80 hospital admissions, with chronic exposures resulting in nearly 100 premature deaths.

“Doctors agree that coal is a health hazard from start to finish,” says Farrah Khan with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. “Coal-fired power plants put Albertans’ health at risk, especially the health of our children.”

“Pollution from coal power contributes to thousands of asthma episodes every year,” says Dr. Robert Oliphant, President and CEO of the Asthma Society of Canada. “On average in Alberta, a child visits an emergency department for asthma every 34 minutes, with pollution from coal power being a major contributor to these episodes.”

Recent polling suggests that only one in three Albertans know the majority of their electricity comes from coal. Though coal is generally seen as a cheap source of electricity, this analysis reveals that the health and social costs of coal pollution add at least 3.6 to 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, nearly doubling the cost of electricity production. [emphasis added]

“Air pollution from coal is linked to respiratory conditions – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, lung cancer, and pneumonia,” says Beth Nanni, Environmental Program Specialist with The Lung Association, Alberta & Northwest Territories. ”We urge the Alberta government to transition away from coal power and towards renewable energy as soon as possible.”

In this study the produced as well the following full cost accounting chart:

Other sources confirm that the effects of air pollution have a direct impact on health including:

• respiratory illnesses
• cardiovascular disease
• allergies
• neurological effects
from: Health Canada Website, http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/air/out-ext/effe/health_effects-effets_sante_e.html

The effects of air pollution from fossil fuel burning are felt on an international scale. The World Health Organization warns that outdoor air pollution poses a considerable risk to human health, leading to greater morbidity and shorter life expectancy. They estimate that air pollution causes two million premature deaths every year.  (See: World Health Organization, “Health Aspects of Air Pollution”, June 2004.)

The most damaging elements of air pollution are NOx, SO2, and particulate matter. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and ozone add to health effects as well. A considerable amount of air pollution is emitted by vehicular traffic, but a significant portion comes from fossil fuel burning in the generation of electricity. In Nova Scotia, electricity generation is responsible for:

• 39% of NOx
• 85.5% of sulphur oxides
• 42.9% of PM
from: GPI Atlantic, “The Ambient Air Quality Accounts for the Nova Scotia Genuine Progress Index”, January 2004.

The Ontario Medical Association (Ontario Medical Association) estimates that exposure to air pollution results in 5,800 premature deaths and cost that province one billion dollars in avoidable health cost per annum. (See: Ontario Medical Association, “The Illness Costs of Air Pollution: 2005-2026 Health and Economic Damage Estimates”, 2005.)

The OMA report identifies four health endpoints from the health effects of air pollution. They are:
• premature death
• hospital admissions
• emergency room visits
• minor illnesses

The Health Canada report on wind turbine proximity and health in Canada (due out in 2014) will certainly add to our understanding of energy production and its impacts. Policy-makers need to weigh the full costs of all options to make good policies. More information like the Health Canada study can only inform more effective energy policy for the health of their constituents. Certainly in Nova Scotia, health care is a considerable portion of our budget and a significant concern for Nova Scotians. Addressing health costs and energy options in a full cost benefit analysis makes the most sense for planning the best energy mix for the future for this province.