Air Quality and Health Benefits from Potential Coal Power Plant Closures in Texas

Authors: B. Strasters, S. Teh, D. Cohan
Published: October 2018 in Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association.

Abstract

As power production from renewable energy and natural gas grows, closures of some coal-fired power plants in Texas become increasingly likely. In this study, the potential effects of such closures on air quality and human health were analyzed by linking a regional photochemical model with a health impacts assessment tool. The impacts varied significantly across 13 of the state’s largest coal-fired power plants, sometimes by more than an order of magnitude, even after normalizing by generation. While some power plants had negligible impacts on concentrations at important monitors, average impacts up to 0.5 parts per billion (ppb) and 0.2 µg/m3 and maximum impacts up to 3.3 ppb and 0.9 µg/m3 were seen for ozone and fine particulate matter (PM2.5), respectively. Individual power plants impacted average visibility by up to 0.25 deciviews in Class I Areas. Health impacts arose mostly from PM2.5 and were an order of magnitude higher for plants that lack scrubbers for SO2. Rankings of health impacts were largely consistent across the base model results and two reduced form models. Carbon dioxide emissions were relatively uniform, ranging from 1.00 to 1.26 short tons/MWh, and can be monetized based on a social cost of carbon. Despite all of these unpaid externalities, estimated direct costs of each power plant exceeded wholesale power prices in 2016.

Implications: While their CO2 emission rates are fairly similar, sharply different NOx and SO2 emission rates and spatial factors cause coal-fired power plants to vary by an order of magnitude in their impacts on ozone, particulate matter, and associated health and visibility outcomes. On a monetized basis, the air pollution health impacts often exceed the value of the electricity generated and are of similar magnitude to climate impacts. This suggests that both air pollution and climate should be considered if externalities are used to inform decision making about power-plant dispatch and retirement.

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