Shutdown of coal-fired plants improves nationwide crop yield, study finds

Posted: 7 January 2020 | | No comments yet

While the shift from coal to natural gas has reduced carbon dioxide emissions overall, it has also reportedly changed local pollution levels at hundreds of areas around the country, improving human health and increasing crop yields.

Shutdown of coal-fired plants improves nationwide crop yield, study finds

The decommissioning of coal-fired power plants in the US has reduced nearby pollution and its negative impacts on human health and crop yields, according to a new University of California San Diego study.

The findings reportedly use the US transition in recent years from coal towards natural gas for electric power generation to study the local impacts of coal-fired unit shutdowns. 

In particular, the burning of coal is said to create particulate matter and ozone in the lower atmosphere – often experienced as ‘smog’ – which can affect humans, plants and regional climate. These pollutants (aerosols, ozone and other compounds) from coal burning can be damaging to human health when inhaled, and can also have negative effects on plant life.

The author, Jennifer Burney, associate professor of environmental science at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, reportedly combined data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on electric power generation with satellite and surface measurements from the EPA as well as NASA to gauge changes in local pollution before and after coal-fired unit shut-downs. She also studied changes in county-level mortality rates and crop yields using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Burney reported that between 2005 and 2016, the shutdown of coal-fired units saved an estimated 26,610 lives and 570 million bushels of corn, soybeans and wheat in their immediate vicinities. The inverse calculation, estimating the damages caused by coal plants left in operation over that same time period, suggests they contributed to 329,417 premature deaths and the loss of 10.2 billion bushels of crops, which is said to be approximately equivalent to half of year’s typical production in the US.

“The unique contribution of this study is its scope and the ability to connect discrete technology changes like an electric power unit being shut down to local health, agriculture and regional climate impacts,” Burney said. “We hear a lot about the overall greenhouse gas and economic impacts of the transition the US has undergone in shifting from coal towards natural gas, but the smaller-scale decisions that make up this larger trend have really important local consequences.”

The analysis is said to provide a framework for communities and industries to more thoroughly and accurately assess the costs and benefits of local investments in energy infrastructure.