The use of coal power in Alberta adds $300-million a year to health expenses, a factor that heavily increases coal's true cost, a new report has found.
Coal pollution also leads to nearly 100 premature deaths, 700 emergency-room visits and 80 hospital admissions each year, as well as triggering asthma attacks, the report said.
Jointly produced by the Pembina Institute, the Asthma Society of Canada (ASC), Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and the Lung Association, the report released Tuesday takes aim at Alberta's coal-dominated, emissions-heavy power sector.
The province's environmental record is under increasing scrutiny, with projects such as the proposed Keystone XL pipeline now the target of environmentalists. Alberta's power sector produces nearly as much greenhouse gas as the oil sands.
Coal proponents say the resource is cheap and reliable, but the report's authors reject that. The 67-page document shows the "social cost" of greenhouse-gas pollution, as well as the economic damages of health impacts of air pollution, increase coal's cost by a range of 50 per cent to 200 per cent.
"When we're talking alternatives and talking about a level market, a level playing field, we need to be including the whole cost," said Tim Weis, director of renewable energy and efficiency policy for the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank. The estimates aren't definitive, he acknowledged, but show a trend.
"They're all pointing the same direction, and they're all indicating there are real costs that are not internalized," he said. With full costs considered, the study authors argue that it's economically and socially beneficial to begin switching to other sources of power, including cleaner-burning natural gas.
Tuesday's report, titled "A Costly Diagnosis: Subsidizing Coal Power with Albertans' Health", also notes coal power produces mercury, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter. The pollutants are tied to asthma and other lung illnesses.
ASC President Robert Oliphant said Alberta's coal sector is "the next big air-quality issue in Canada," with Alberta and American coal power polluting skies across borders. "We can't stand up to our continental partners if we, in our own country, are not modelling better air-quality efforts," Dr. Oliphant said.
A 2005 Ontario government report found that health and environmental impacts quadruple the cost of coal. Ontario expects to close its last coal plant this year, but that has meant steep increases in power bills.
Meanwhile, coal provided 55 per cent of Alberta's power in 2011, according to government figures, and 64 per cent in 2012, according to Tuesday's report. Natural gas provides most of the rest of the power.
Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes said Alberta's carbon price has reduced the electricity sector's emissions. While "Alberta has long recognized the importance of producing cleaner energy," he said in a written statement, "… the use of coal helps keep our industries competitive and Albertans' home power bills affordable."
However, the province has recently approved new coal plants or expansions. Federal changes will ensure that new plants can operate for 50 years to come – too long, in the eyes of the report's authors.
"Those are big opportunities for us to be greening the grid and making the gains on the greenhouse-gas side, but also have the co-benefits of reducing health impacts," Mr. Weis said.