I've been mulling over tackling this topic since the ENGO's launched a campaign, to support the Green Energy Act and related FIT lotteries, built around implications of increasingly large heath costs due to the use of coal plants - despite a 90% reduction in the use of those coal plants. Recently there's been a great deal of news related to the points I thought were pertinent, the primary one being that if pollutants from electricity generation are decreasing, and respiratory problems are increasing, you should probably look at other urban issues,
I'm going to just skip over arguing the background fairly quickly. What I'd like to cover is simply that my province, Ontario, has a pretty clean electricity output compared to adjacent jurisdictions in the US, but that both jurisdictions have made some headway on smog-related emissions. I already noted a site you can go to explore the government line, parroted through their ENGO's, on coal plants being the cause of respiratory issues in the big city, and here's a better place to go for a better understanding of the complex issues involved with smog - and respiratory health. No doubt burning anything can contribute to smog, but there is something deceptive in implying respiratory problems are rising due to the coal use that has been rapidly declining - as others, including Ross McKitrick, have pointed out.
A quick word on the data for the following charts. The Ontario data is taken from first the National Inventory report for 2009 (page 50 of Part III), and secondly from the 2004 Inventory (Page 364). Bizarrely the two don't exactly match. Between reporting 2009 estimates in 2011, and 2004's estimates in 2006, we really made a dint in emissions in 1990. Methodology changes. The US data is from the EIA site. I've included California simply due to it's reputation - which I don't get. Keep in mind the figures presented here on volume refer to production, and not consumption - Ontario imported a great volume of electricity in 1990, and by 2008 it was exporting a lot. The situation is reversed for New York state.
The urgency for many is CO2 emissions, which show Ontario starting out as the lowest and staying there. 1994 was the peak for nuclear production in Ontario (60% of the total) - then we closed some units and ran more coal, but by 2005 we'd returned 4 of the idled units.
This is a little skewed to smaller producers, so here's the production totals. I emphasize the majority of Ontario's production change, from 1990 to 2009, is due to a move from importing to exporting.
Put these together and you get a surprisingly stable emissions rate/intensity picture:
Not a whole lot of moving about in the order there. But that's just the CO2 story - and I think that story is pretty simple. If you don't produce it with hydro produce it with nuclear - all else is fiddling while, if you concur with most on the science, earth burns.
But the smog picture is entirely different. US EPA ruguations were introduced last week to address cross border emissions, largely on NOx and SO2 and with the specific intent of addressing the ground level ozone ingredients that can be detrimental to health. All the states graphed, with the exception of California, are included in those regulations.
All were already making some progress.
Tyler Hamilton stated that “on average 55 per cent of air pollution comes into southern Ontario from the United States.” I'm very skeptical that is true. What few realize is the extent to which adjacent states' emissions have already been dropping.
Michigan clearly has some improving to do (I've previously noted their supply mix - heavy on coal - here)
So everything should be getting better - and there seemed to be indications in southwestern Ontario, and the GTA, that things are. Smog days are again a rarity, instead of the weekly occurance they were in 2003-2005.
And yet the medical folks still are claiming not only increased respiratory troubles, but it is once again being noted, internationally, that city dwellers just don't live as long as country folks.
Because of air quarlity..
From Hamilton, Ontario to London, England the debate may be starting up on how to make cities better places to breath.
I think that would be a great debate to have. I don't think the data supports that electricity generation improvements can do much more in improving urban air quality.