The following article, written by William M. Bowen and appearing on Crain’s Cleveland Business, supports GEM Energy’s efforts to develop environmentally friendly, Combined Heat and Power (CHP) and small distributed generation plants in Ohio using Capstone Microturbines fueled by Ohio natural gas. Read the article below, or view on Crain’s Cleveland website.
To my mind, the most convincing reasons to prefer distributed generation policies are economic.
As I’ve said in the past, the evidence suggests that distributed, small scale generating sources located near to the point of consumption offer the greatest opportunity for hugely important, but little-known, economic advantages over giant plants.
But traditional economic analysis is by no means the only reason to prefer distributed generation. One vitally important, yet often unrecognized, reason to support distributed generation stems directly from the fact that the average adult person breathes more than 3,000 gallons of air every day.
Giant, coal-fired electric power production hugely affects the quality of that air. More importantly, researchers say, it’s actually killing people.
Airborne byproducts of coal-fired electric power plants such as ground-level ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and particulate matter create severe air pollution and health problems. Ground-level ozone, for instance, is known to cause shortness of breath, asthma, chest pain and premature death, especially among children, the elderly and people with lung disease. Sulfur dioxide acts as an extreme lung irritant. Although we do not see them or smell them, each of the various emissions carries its own human health and environmental problems.
While the emissions from giant coal fired electric generating plants — more than any other single stationary source of air pollution — adversely impact air quality and human health, these health effects are not factored into the prices charged by utilities or paid for by consumers.
The worst may be particulate matter. Particulates are small particles made up of soot. When they are emitted, they get into the air we breathe. When we breathe them in, they make their way through our nostrils into our lungs — even sometimes into our blood stream. Their adverse health impacts are believed by medical scientists to include cancer, cardiopulmonary diseases and premature death.
Of the various forms of particulate matter, the worst are the really small particles — so small they are measured in billionths of a meter, or nanometers. Researchers recently have associated emissions of fine particulate matter with the incidence of premature mortality and morbidity outcomes.
A group of researchers at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated there were approximately 160,000 premature deaths in the United States in 2010 due to exposure to these very small particulates. In 2012, another group from the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina reported in the journal Risk Analysis their estimates that there were between 130,000 and 340,000 early deaths, related to small particulate pollution, throughout the United States in 2005.
In the November 2013 issue of the journal Atmospheric Environment, a group of researchers from MIT reported their estimates of premature deaths from small particulate exposure specifically attributable to electric power generation in Cleveland. They estimate that 466 people die prematurely in Cleveland each year because of our current system of producing electric power.
Investors in large-scale coal fired power plant and the grid, along with the utility executives and officials who operate them, primarily are interested in securing the near-term returns on investment and profits they produce. That’s to be expected. These deaths are the collateral damage of doing their legitimate business. They are external to their business model.
But at the same, these deaths are indicative of the extent to which policies such as Senate Bill 221 — which sets renewable energy benchmarks for Ohio utilities — are needed to establish the institutional prerequisites for distributed generation and to assure the lowest cost long-term availability of electricity.
Many of the renewable sources of electricity incentivized by policies supportive of distributed power generation do not create air pollution-related health problems at all. Other sources, such as natural gas, burn much cleaner than coal and therefore tend to create far less-severe problems. When energy-efficiency programs reduce the amount of coal fired electricity production, they also tend to reduce the problems.
Insofar as Ohioans want to maintain and incentivize plant energy efficiency programs, avoid the many known problems of monopoly capitalism, establish the institutional conditions necessary for competition in electricity markets, and save hundreds or thousands of people from dying prematurely, keeping our existing rules, rather than modifying them with recently introduced legislation — is a good place to start.