To say that every time you flip a light switch, you kill another coal miner would be an outrageous and unsupportable allegation, but we need to think about the costs, in addition to the electric bill, of keeping the lights on.
Close to half of the electricity produced in the U.S. comes from burning coal, and a lot of it. Current use is about a billion tons of coal a year. The costs we pay directly include the actual costs of extraction of the coal, and additional costs tangentially related to coal extraction. The tragic deaths of 29 miners in West Virginia forces us to see these additional costs.
In addition to the deaths from accidents are the more significant but less dramatic deaths from diseases associated with coal mining. Black lung disease is estimated to take 1,000- 3,000 thousand lives per year. Chronic, non-lethal conditions such as related cardiopulmonary diseases affect many, many more miners. If the coal companies pay the health care costs associated with mining, then the cost is added to the price we pay for electricity, but the emotional costs are immeasurable and born by the miners and their families.
We literally have to decide what a life is worth. How much are we willing to spend on our electricity to prevent another death through greater but much more costly safety regulations? Put more bluntly, how many deaths and how much debilitating illness will we tolerate to save money on our electric bill?
Costs which we bear collectively but outside the cost of electricity are more insidious. Severe environmental degradation occurs when mountain top removal strategies are employed to get at coal seams. The tops of mountains are blasted and pushed into surrounding valleys. Acid drainage from various mining techniques can destroy virtually all life in affected watersheds. Emissions from the burning of coal include numerous toxic metals such as mercury, cadmium, lead and arsenic. More radionuclides are released to the environment from burning coal than the total fuel cycle of nuclear reactors. Coal combustion is the major contributor to global warming and and changes in ocean chemistry through acidification.
So the question becomes what do you want to pay for your electricity, in dollars, lives and the environment you leave to our children. The most important thing you can do is examine how much energy you use. You really don’t need kilowatt-hours of electricity. What you want is a warm in the winter, cool in the summer, well-lit house. Or a successful business that meets the customer’s needs.
To a surprising degree, this can be achieved through the utilization of what Amory Lovins calls “negawatts.” That’s the energy you don’t use through efficiency. It’s better than a free lunch, it is a lunch that pays you to eat it! Examples abound: LED light bulbs, attic insulation, shade trees, and clotheslines just to name a few.
Even if we don’t act responsibly, ultimately we will power the world without burning carbon because we will have used up it all up. But we can act responsibly, we can decide that the adoption of a world powered by truly sustainable energy is our best and only future.