Release: Update Needed on True Costs of Pollution in Energy Planning



Beth Goodpaster, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, 612.308.0093,
J. Drake Hamilton, Fresh Energy, 651.366.7557,
Joshua Low, Sierra Club, 612.234.5569,

Update Needed on True Costs of Pollution in Energy Planning

Analyses show Minnesota planning does not reflect the reality of the enormous costs to people and society of pollution from coal-burning power plants

St. Paul, MN – Today, a group of clean energy organizations (Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Izaak Walton League of America – Midwest Office, Fresh Energy, Sierra Club, Center for Energy and Environment, and the Will Steger Foundation), filed a motion asking the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to update the costs of health and environmental damages caused by electricity generation that are used in electricity investment decisions. The motion was supported by health and economic experts speaking at a morning press conference in St. Paul.

The clean energy organizations are asking the PUC to update the costs it uses in electricity decisions, for carbon dioxide (CO2) and NOx emissions, and to establish cost values for SO2 and PM2.5 emissions. These values are used in electricity resource decisions.

“Minnesota is poised to make important, long-range decisions about major investments in its energy future—decisions that will impact generations of Minnesotans, “ said J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director at Fresh Energy. “It is imperative that Minnesota use sound, up-to-date information about the real human health and environmental costs and consequences of electricity decisions.”

Minnesota’s energy planning law seeks to account for both the internal and the external costs of electricity, by requiring regulators at the PUC to adopt “externality value” pricing for electricity that accounts for the costs inflicted on society from the emission of pollution. Beth Goodpaster, clean energy program director at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said of today’s motion, “The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, by law, must update the health and environmental cost values it first adopted nearly two decades ago and still uses in electricity resource decisions. Those values are badly out of date, and no longer scientifically defensible.”

The clean energy organizations point to results of a September 2013 study conducted at the University of Minnesota by Andrew L. Goodkind and Dr. Stephen Polasky, “Health and Environmental Costs of Electricity Generation in Minnesota.” The economists estimate that the real costs caused by Minnesota coal-burning power plants are substantial: the damages caused by pollution emitted into the air by coal-burning power plants make up an astounding 94 percent of the total health and environmental damages caused by electricity generation in Minnesota.

The University of Minnesota economists estimate that total health and environmental damages from electricity generation in Minnesota, including impacts to human health and the environment, are $2.164 billion every year. These damages include $877 million from criteria air pollutants, and $1.287 billion from carbon pollution. Dr. Stephen Polasky emphasized the differences between experts’ understanding of the true health and environmental costs of fossil-fueled power plants today as compared to 16 years ago: “These costs are far higher than damages established by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission in 1997. The total damages from electricity generation in Minnesota using the PUC’s outdated numbers are between $58 million and $257 million (in 2010 U.S. dollars).”

Electricity generation results in large quantities of air pollution that have serious human health and environmental costs. The costs stem from emission of criteria air pollutants that have negative impacts on human health and the environment, and greenhouse gases that impact climate change damages.

Carbon dioxide emissions from power plants are the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States. The impacts from carbon emissions are fundamentally different from those of other air pollution. The damages from most air pollutants are experienced relatively close to the source, and those damages are mostly to human health. Carbon pollution, however, leads to climate change with damages that occur around the globe, many of which will not be experienced for many years.

In Minnesota, approximately 392,000 adults and children have asthma, and burning fossil fuels in power plants adds to their suffering. “Every time air pollution triggers an asthma attack, we pay the cost for continuing to operate coal-burning power plants,” reported Minnesota mother Shawna Hedlund, whose children have asthma. “One year our son’s health care costs were $11,000.”

“Minnesota will benefit from reexamining the true impacts of pollution,” according to a filing in support of today’s motion by the American Lung Association in Minnesota. “Our understanding of the health impacts has greatly improved since the externalities calculations were last adjusted in the 1990s. Increases in the externalities rates are needed to reflect these health impacts.”