Before going into how Solar Energy (Solar Photovoltaic Electricity Production) would be beneficial in replacing Coal Fired Power Plants I would like to state some facts about our atmosphere and greenhouse gases. Without taking water vapor into account (which is a largely variable gas) the pre-industrial atmosphere was made up of about 78% Nitrogen and 21% Oxygen. That only leaves 1% of our atmosphere which is made up of trace gases. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide comprise less than 300th of a percent of our pre-industrial atmosphere. Without these greenhouse gases Earth would be a giant frozen ball in space. Even minor changes to these gases can cause extreme warming since they make up such a tiny fraction of our atmosphere. Of all the greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide is most significant because of its atmospheric lifetime and the associated warming ability that goes along with it, changing the amount of heat energy trapped within our climate system. Today, while still taking water vapor out of the equation, greenhouse gases make up 400th of a percent of our atmosphere and this number has been rapidly rising since the industrial revolution (with a sharp increase since the 1950s).
A study posted by Professor Joshua M. Pearce from Michigan Technological University called “Potential Lives Saved by Replacing Coal with Solar Photovoltaic Electricity Production in the U.S.” focuses on how air pollution from coal combustion adversely impacts human health mortality and morbidity effects on respiratory, cardiovascular, nervous, urinary, and digestive systems. He continues to state that the use of coal is no longer necessary to provide for society’s electrical needs due to advances in solar energy. Coal combustion for electrical generation contributes to high levels of carbon dioxide emissions as well as conventional air pollution. Today, coal combustion still accounts for roughly 30-40% of U.S. carbon dioxide pollution. Carbon dioxide is not the only toxic gas released during coal combustion, however. Methane, particulate matter, nitrogen and sulfur oxides, and mercury also contribute to air pollution due to coal combustion. A full life cycle of coal accounts to an estimated $523.3 billion in damages. This study doesn’t even take into account medical costs and loss of productivity from coal emissions. It is estimated that the U.S. spends roughly $185 billion per year on the effects of coal emissions.
About 52,000 people die from coal related air pollution each year, and this number is only reflected from the combustion stage of coal-fired electricity. The cycle also includes extraction, transport, and processing. Combustion was the focus of this study because it is found to be the stage with the heaviest health burden. So taking into account only the combustion stage of coal-fired electricity and only the effects of air pollution from this stage, Professor Pearce concluded that by switching to solar energy we would save 51,999 people per year. If solar energy had absolutely no value, that would come at a cost of $1.1 million initial cost per life saved. However, since solar electricity has value, he determined the cost per life to include the revenue of the solar electric generation and found that in most cases, we would actually save money (upwards of several million dollars per year) per life saved. He concluded that it is actually profitable to save lives in the U.S. by substituting coal-fired electricity with solar power as well as having substantial health and environmental benefits.
Since Professor Pearce calculated the deaths per year with coal-fired electricity he decided to do the same with solar power to end up with his final analysis. Taking into account every resource he could find on every stage of solar production and the potential hazards which could be associated with it, he found that less than one person would die each year from solar energy if we were to completely replace coal with it. Today, the U.S. Photovoltaic penetration levels are 27.4GW. Pearce estimated it would take 755GW of Solar Power to completely replace the electricity provided by coal. The current costs for such would be $1.45 trillion with a 25 year warranty on each module. Even at this large cost, it is concluded that it is profitable to save 51,999 people every year. The switch would enable the U.S. to become a global leader in renewable technology adoption. I do realize there are negative short term impacts of switching completely out of the coal industry and into solar energy. This would cause financial distress for many people and a lot of people would be unemployed because of it. On the other hand, expanding solar energy as a replacement for coal would create many more jobs, as there are more stages in the production process. I feel that the long term benefits for our health, our planet, and even our economy outweigh the short term costs of switching from coal to solar.