The shutdown of hundreds of coal-fired power plants in the United States over the past decade has saved an estimated 26,610 lives, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Sustainability. This closure of coal plants also has reduced carbon dioxide emissions and lowered air pollution and ozone levels, and has even increased nearby crop yields, the study found.
More than 330 coal-fired power plants stopped operating in the U.S. between 2005 and 2016, thanks in part due to aging facilities and a glut of cheap natural gas. The new research, led by environmental scientist Jennifer Burney at the University of California, San Diego, found that the wave of closures prevented more than 300 million tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere. Combined with advances in emissions control technology, it also led to a 60-percent decline in emissions of nitrogen dioxide from coal plants, and an 80-percent decline in emissions of sulfur dioxide. Decreases in particulate matter, ozone, and other coal-related pollution also occurred.
“When you turn coal units off you see deaths go down. It’s something we can see in a tangible way,” Burney told The Guardian. “There is a cost to coal beyond the economics. We have to think carefully about where plants are sited, as well as how to reduce their pollutants.”
In total, the shutdown of U.S. coal plants saved an estimated 26,610 lives and 570 million bushels of corn, soybeans, and wheat over the past decade. The study also calculated the impact of coal-fired stations still in operation, estimating that the U.S.’s remaining coal plants caused 329,417 deaths and the loss of 10.2 billion bushels of staple crops between 2005 and 2016.