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Cleaner fuels kill up to 46,000 Americans a year, study finds

Burning natural gas and wood instead of charcoal was supposed to be a bridge to a more secure future, where heat and electricity came from sources that didn’t generate as much pollution.

But new research suggests that alternative fuels are less of a bridge and more of a staircase.

A new study from Harvard University has found that in at least 19 states plus Washington, DC, gas combustion now kills more people than coal due to exposure to a deadly type of fine particulate matter called PM2 , 5 which persists in air and becomes lodged in lung tissue.

The study, published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Research Letters, found 47,000 to 69,000 premature deaths each year that could be attributed to emissions from things like buildings, generators and industrial boilers. Of this total, gas, wood and biomass fumes are responsible for 29,000 to 46,000 deaths.

“If you replace one combustion fuel with another, that’s not a path to a healthy energy system,” said Jonathan Buonocore, a Harvard researcher and lead author of the article. “It shows that even with the transition from coal to gas, there are still impacts.”

The results highlight the benefits of removing charcoal. In 2008, when coal produced almost half of the country’s electricity, emissions from the electricity sector caused between 59,000 and 66,000 premature deaths. In 2017, that number fell to 10,000 to 12,000 deaths.

Douglas Sacha via Getty Images

The St. Paul Cogeneration Plant is a combined heat and power plant that burns 280,000 tonnes of wood waste each year to create 25 megawatts of electricity in Minnesota’s power grid.

Along with the decrease in the number of deaths, the production of climate-changing carbon in the United States has been accompanied by a decline, as gas produces about half the CO2 in coal. But other recent studies have questioned these climatic benefits.

U.S. production of carbon dioxide, the main gas responsible for climate change, fell 10% between 2000 and 2018, as emissions from the electricity sector fell 23%, mainly due to the withdrawal of coal-fired power plants. But if the new fleet of gas-fired power plants built over the past decade lasts as long and is ignited as often as the coal-fired units they replaced, the projected emissions for the U.S. electric sector over the lifespan of these generators will reduce pollutants that change 12%, a study published last year in the journal AGU Advances found.

Add to that the highest estimates of the amount of methane, a powerful heat-trapping gas and the main ingredient in natural gas, leaks during production and combustion, and even those reductions are effectively eliminated, according to the study. In response to growing climate concerns and cheaper renewables, utilities are now publicly considering phasing out gas plants before they expire.

New Harvard research shows the magnitude of the health risks associated with not only replacing coal-fired power plants with gas-fired units, but also maintaining the use of gas or other fuels for heating, kitchen and industrial purposes.

“We have always tended to focus on very large point sources [of pollution] like power plants and factories, ”Buonocore said. “What this shows is that to keep improving air pollution, we should focus on buildings and small industries.”

If you replace one fuel with another, it is not a path to a healthy energy system.
Jonathan Buonocore, research scientist at Harvard

The study comes as building emissions take center stage in the fight for climate policy. As more cities choose to ban gas hook-ups in new or renovated buildings, at least a dozen states are considering legislation to prevent these restrictions and protect gas utilities from what they consider. as an existential threat to industry. The nonprofit that sets building codes across the country, meanwhile, eliminated the right of municipal governments to vote on model energy codes in what was widely seen as an attempt to slow the transition to non-fossil heating and cooking systems.

Fine particles released into the air from everything from gas stoves to power stations to automobiles disproportionately burden non-white Americans, who are exposed to 2.4 times more pollution on average than their counterparts white, according to a study published last week in the journal Science Advances.

“Although natural gas burns cleaner than coal, its use still results in significant co-product emissions and corresponding public health impacts,” said Eric Daniel Fournier, research director at the University of California, California. Center for Sustainable Communities in Los Angeles, which did not participate in the study. “As gas grows into a larger fraction of the county’s primary fuel portfolio, it will naturally become responsible for a greater proportion of the health impacts from stationary sources, of which power generation is a major contributor.”

Buonocore and his coauthors extracted the last nine years of emissions data available from the Environmental Protection Agency and compared it to state-level data from the Energy Information Administration. The researchers then analyzed the numbers through three models of reduced complexity, which simplify the projections by making assumptions about the weather conditions and chemical reactions that will occur when pollutants enter the atmosphere.

These models do not give the full picture of people who get sick and die from coal-related pollution, which includes mine tailings, toxic ash waste, and nitrogen dioxide emissions. But the results “confirmed recent trends: we observed that the decrease in the impacts of coal and the increase in the impacts of gas and biomass are likely to continue,” said Parichehr Salimifard, postdoctoral fellow at Havard et co. -author of the study.

“This study highlights the gap that there has been in our climate planning,” said Salimifard. “Because we focused on gas emissions, there was blindness to other air pollutants dangerous to health.”


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