Category: pollution

Defining Safety Levels for Particulates Could Hurt Your Health – and the Economy

Defining Safety Levels for Particulates Could Hurt Your Health – and the Economy

You’ve probably heard about some of the recent changes from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But you might have missed the proposal about particulate matter (PM), since it didn’t get as much press. Or even if you saw it, you might not have recognized all the implications because they’re not immediately obvious.

This proposal is to define a safety threshold for what’s called PM 2.5, and it’s a reversal of the EPA’s prior stance. Until recently, the EPA said that no amount of particulate matter can be considered safe. Changing that could have serious impacts on our health – and the economy.

What is PM 2.5, and where does it come from?

Even if you’ve never heard of particulates, you’re likely familiar with them. These are the fine particles of liquids and solids that contribute to haze-filled cities and poor air quality. In fact, another name for PM is particle pollution.[1] This is because the tiny size allows these particles to get everywhere – including deep in your lungs.

PM 2.5 is a specific kind, named because the particles are only 2.5 micrometers in size. For comparison, an average human hair is 75 micrometers in width.[2]

These tiny materials are everywhere, coming from a number of places, including cigarettes and fireplace smoke. But the vast majority come from two sources:

–          50% is from industrial production, with 20% of that from coal-powered plants

–          35% is from gas-powered vehicles of all kinds[3]

Costs and benefits with current policy 

Under the current policy, with no level of particulate matter considered “safe,” any reduction of PM 2.5 below current levels is considered a benefit, and can be included in federal cost-benefit analyses.

In other words, if regulations to reduce greenhouse gases simultaneously reduce PM 2.5 (as they would, given that they share many of the same sources), that reduction counts as a co-benefit. And those co-benefits can play a significant role in the cost-benefit analysis of any proposed regulation to reduce greenhouse gases.

For example, the Clean Power Plan from the Obama era had an estimated $20 billion in climate benefits. But the benefits go up when you consider that the same technology used to reduce power plant emissions would also cut PM levels. Those changes result in an additional $13 to $30.3 billion in health benefits, effectively doubling the benefits.

Similarly, the Mercury and Air Toxics standards save $4 to $6 million by reducing toxins. And in this case, the co-benefit from reducing particulates is even higher, coming in between $37 and $90 billion.[4]

Proposed change reduces benefits

Now, under the proposed changes, lowering PM levels below the suggested “safety levels” won’t count as a benefit. After all, if anything below the threshold is already considered safe, bringing it down even further won’t be helpful.

This means that moving forward, climate change initiatives like the Clean Power Plan wouldn’t be able to factor in the lower levels of PM 2.5. And without that, the initiative might not get implemented, because the cost would be considered too high without the co-benefit to offset it.[5]

Damages from air pollution

 The impact on regulations is a concern, but those aren’t the only considerations. Air pollution already causes damages between $75 and $230 billion annually. And PM 2.5 contributes more to that than their size indicates.

Even though these particulates only account for 6% of emissions by weight, they cause 23% of the damages. The damages from PM 2.5 alone are between $17.25 and $52.9 billion annually. [6]

Health and economic impact

Most of the economic damage caused by PM 2.5 is due to increased health costs.[7] Health issues associated with PM 2.5 include:

–          Respiratory illnesses like bronchitis

–          Premature death

–          Low birth weight

–          Higher risk of asthma

–          Greater risk of heart disease

–          More instances of lung cancer

These conditions all carry increased economic cost. Some of this is a result of increased medical care, such as hospital visits and medication. [8]

But the costs also come from lost work time and reduced productivity. People who need to take time off for appointments and medical care won’t be as effective. Similarly, those who can’t breathe as well have less energy and will be less productive, even if they don’t require urgent care.

In addition, since particulates contribute to poor air quality, people might be more likely to stay inside. This means lost revenue from outdoor recreation and the potential of reduced health from lower levels of activity.

Poor air quality actually could have a negative impact on region’s workforce. Putting a priority on quality of life is becoming more common – including looking at factors like air quality. If an area has a distinct haze, or higher levels of respiratory conditions, people may choose to leave, or to not move there to begin with.[9]

Conclusion

While it’s impossible to identify all the effects of the EPA’s proposed safety threshold, it’s clear that the negative impacts could be far-reaching. Given that, the EPA and other agencies should take all of the risks into account before accepting a change that could cause such extensive damages to our environment, our health, and our economy.

Photo Credit:   Eltiempo10 [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

[1] https://airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=aqibasics.particle

[2] http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/08/kill-climate-rule-trump-s-epa-wants-redefine-danger-soot

[3] http://www.rff.org/blog/2007/what-do-damages-caused-us-air-pollution-cost

[4] http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/08/kill-climate-rule-trump-s-epa-wants-redefine-danger-soot

[5] Ibid

[6] http://www.rff.org/blog/2007/what-do-damages-caused-us-air-pollution-cost

[7] Ibid

[8] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/jobs/2011/05/06/we-are-what-we-breathe-the-impacts-of-air-pollution-on-employment-and-productivity/

[9] https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2018/05/29/how-the-air-quality-where-you-live-might-be-affecting-your-health/#2881f8b37017

Keeping the Lights On Doesn’t Mean More Pollution

Keeping the Lights On Doesn’t Mean More Pollution

Photo – Creative Commons/Flickr Amy the Nurse

In August of 2017, Energy Secretary and former governor Rick Perry proposed to strengthen subsidies to coal- and nuclear-fueled electricity plants.  Why?  According to his proposal, coal and nuclear power plants are indispensable to our national security by virtue of the fact that they can store energy on-site. And, since the past few years have seen declines in both coal and nuclear facilities in the United States, the concern is that the nation’s electricity grid will be less reliable in the future. The proposal would have guaranteed cost recovery and a fair rate of return for generators that can store at least 90 days’ worth of energy on site.  Fortunately, the Federal Regulatory Commission rejected it.  Even so, it’s still worth looking at the pros and cons of such a proposal.

More power outages and more disruptions would, of course, harm our energy-intensive economy. As the recent spate of hurricanes (including high winds in my home state of Maine) have shown, such energy disruptions can be costly. In fact, 2017 was the costliest year in terms of economic damages from natural disasters in the US.

Would subsidizing coal and nuclear facilities really have been the best solution? To answer that, we need to take a deeper look.  When I teach cost-benefit analysis, I encourage my students to consider the baseline – what would have happened in the absence of the policy or proposal in question. The number of coal and nuclear plants in this country has been declining for decades. The decline can be attributed to several factors, including environmental regulations, but mainly the declines are due to market forces (low electricity prices, declining electricity demand, and new supplies from natural gas) and aging infrastructure. Without taking a close look at the finances of the plants in question, we can assume that at least some of these plants would have been likely to follow.  Increasing subsidies to already struggling nuclear and coal plants would likely have been just another case of throwing good money after bad.

When considering the costs and benefits of the proposed plan, there would have been several different categories, each accruing to different groups.  The beneficiaries of the plan would likely have been owners and shareholders of the qualifying coal and nuclear plants.  Their consumers, as well, may have benefited from a lower average wholesale price of electricity; however, the proposal recommended adding a surcharge to consumers’ bills in order to cover the costs. According to the analysis done by Resources for the Future, the drop in the wholesale price of electricity would not have been enough to cover the surcharge.

Moreover, practitioners of cost-benefit analysis need to carefully consider all the costs and benefits of a proposal, not just those that are easily monetized.  A complete analysis of the costs and benefits of Secretary Perry’s proposal should include the damages caused by pollution from coal and nuclear-powered plants to humans and agriculture. (While the generation of electricity from nuclear plants does not create air pollution, the mining for uranium does create environmental destruction.) Such external costs are in reality a passive subsidy that coal and nuclear plants have enjoyed for decades. An additional subsidy would exacerbate the problem. According to the analysis done by Resources for the Future, the proposed plan would have immediately increased sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, two pollutants generated by the combustion of fossil fuel.  This increase in emissions is linked to an increase in premature deaths caused by respiratory diseases such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Once environmental costs are factored in, net benefits to society would have been decidedly negative.

The next question is: would the subsidies have alleviated the problem of grid instability? The answer to this question actually lies in the question itself.  Is there really a problem of power disruption caused by declining coal and nuclear plants? Some recent research by the Rhodium Group says no.  Researchers examined the data collected by the Department of Energy whenever an electricity generator experiences an outage or a disturbance.  Results indicate that disruptions in fuel supply were responsible for less than 1 one hundredth of one percent of lost customer service hours between 2012 and 2016.  The remainder were caused by disruptions to energy distribution  Primarily, those disruptions were caused by severe weather, not by supply disruptions.  The FERC ultimately agreed when it rejected Secretary Perry’s proposal.

However, the FERC did agree that the reliability of the grid was an issue looking into.  If the goal of Secretary Perry’s proposal was to increase the reliability of the grid – not just to prop up nuclear and coal – there are several less costly and ultimately beneficial ways of doing so.  One such possibility is to replace our nation’s aging energy-related infrastructure, much of which dates to the 1950s and 60s. Energy infrastructure actually received a “D+” on the 2017 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Upgrading the energy infrastructure would come with many ancillary benefits.

A second alternative would be to invest in distributed energy and microgrids.  Distributed energy is the use of small, decentralized power generation and storage systems. While larger utilities consider the rise of distributed energy to be a threat to the existing system, the greater use of distributed energy could actually increase the resilience of our current, outdated system.  However, doing so will require innovations in monitoring, modeling, “smart switches,” and other technologies to manage peak demand and integration.

A third possibility is to invest in better long-term energy storage. Lithium ion batteries may be our best choice for now, but other storage technologies, such as flow batteries or zinc air batteries.  But by far the best alternative – one that should be a crucial part of any solution – is energy conservation.  A unit of energy conserved is one that doesn’t need to be generated.  You don’t get much more reliable than that.

Woody Biomass: One step forward, two steps back?

Woody Biomass: One step forward, two steps back?

image

Last week I was a guest in my colleague’s Renewable Energy Law class.  One of the questions I was asked had to do with Maine’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS).  Maine’s RPS seems, at first glance, to be an ambitious goal (40 percent of Maine’s electricity is to come from renewable sources by 2017). However, at the time the RPS was made law, Maine was already mostly meeting that goal, thanks to Maine’s booming woody biomass industry. 

Other states in the New England Power Network can help fulfill their own RPS by purchasing renewable energy certificates (RECS) from other states in the network.  If a particular unit of energy is produced by a renewable source, that unit of energy could earn a REC, which could then be sold elsewhere.  However, even though every state in New England has a RPS (except Vermont, which has a goal), they don’t all accept the same types of energy for their RPS. Hence, there are some RECS that can be sold in some states, but not others.

Maine is the only state in New England that accepts biomass and large scale hydro to help fulfill its RPS. Therefore, any biomass facility that produces RECS can only sell them in Maine. In a report that came out detailing the performance of Maine’s RPS during the past year, a good 95% of the  Maine RPS was met through RECS generated from biomass.  And the fact that biomass credits can only be sold in Maine will depress the price of those credits -leading to less revenue for those facilities.

Which lead to one of the students’ questions: why don’t the other states accept biomass?  It’s a good question.  Leaving aside the (obvious) conclusion that Maine accepts biomass as an energy source in order to prop up its ailing wood products industry, why would other states not accept it? Isn’t biomass a renewable source of energy? And isn’t it carbon neutral ?

The answer, as any good economist knows, is “it depends.”  (My father used to say -paraphrasing Harry Truman – that what the world needs is a one-handed economist, because we’re always saying ”on the one hand….  But on the other hand…” ) Biomass is certainly a renewable source, in the strict physical sense that the “fuel” used – plant matter – is renewable.  The time it takes to regenerate, of course, depends on the growth rate of the plant matter used.

But there’s also no escaping from the grim third law of thermodynamics – that matter (or energy) can neither be created nor destroyed.  It takes power to make power.  How efficient the energy source is depends upon the energy content of the fuel and the energy used up in the process of making it.  Think lifecycle analysis.  If a unit of energy generated requires two units of energy in order to generate it, then that source isn’t really renewable – is it?

UPDATE: As my colleague Bill Strauss of FutureMetrics points out, “Every solid or liquid fuel whether coal, pellets, gasoline, diesel, natural gas, etc., gathers a carbon footprint from mining, extraction, refining, transport, etc.  Only biomass, if the net carbon stock is not depleted (i.e., the growth rate equals or exceeds the harvest rate), captures the CO2 from combustion contemporaneously…  Wood pellets are a low carbon solution… they are carbon neutral in combustion but are not carbon neutral over the supply chain.  Of course neither is anything else that depends on fossil fuel for transport etc.”

Absolutely, Bill, and thanks for that. (So people actually do read this stuff…) Check out their website!

Biofuel can be made from a number of things: corn, switch grass, trees, wood  manufacturing waste, to name a few.  And there are a number of ways biofuel can be produced – burned, fermented, digested by bacteria, or “gasified.”  The energy content of the fuel as well as the energy input needed vary widely for each process. 

As for whether it’s carbon neutral – well,  anyone who makes that claim is doing some pretty funky carbon accounting.  In the sense that the carbon released when the tree is burned is the same amount of carbon that was “stored” in the tree – then yes. But what about the carbon used in harvesting the tree?  Getting it to the processing site,  and from there to where it will ultimately be used? There’s also the fact that trees uptake carbon at different rates in their lifecycle, and that different species of trees uptake carbon at different rates. So for it to be carbon neutral, the net stock of carbon in the forest needs to remain unchanged. It’s possible, but it’s not as simple as “cut a tree, plant a tree.”

What about the claim that it’s sustainable? Again,  it depends.  If the trees are harvested at the same rate they regenerate, then yes. And, Maine’s biomass is mostly from residue from the forest products industry, so the use of waste product for energy gets a thumbs up in my book.

Recently,  two major biomass facilities in Maine went offline,  alarming the logging industry and others in the forest products supply chain. It also should alarm environmentalists.  The decline in oil prices has not only boosted demand for oil,  but depressed demand for biomass and other renewable sources of energy. Biomass may not be a perfect source of energy,  but it needs to be part of the energy solution in Maine.