The toll air pollution exacts on human health and other “hidden” costs of energy production and use are profiled in a new report by the National Research Council. The cost of the nation’s appetite for energy is not reflected in market prices for coal, oil, and other sources – or the electricity and gasoline that are produced from them. Released on October 19, the report estimates dollar values for these hidden costs.

The report, sponsored by the U.S. Treasury Department, focuses on monetizing damages caused by major air pollutants – including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, and particulate matter – on human health, grain crops, timber yields, buildings, and recreation.

The NRC estimated those costs at $120 billion in 2005 – the most recent year for which data is available. The number primarily reflects health damages from air pollution associated with the generation of electricity and motor vehicle transportation.

The NRC did not estimate the hidden costs associated with damages resulting from climate change, such as harm to ecosystems, the effects of some air pollutants such as mercury, and risks to national security.

Among key findings:

  • In 2005, the total external damages from sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter created by burning coal at 406 coal-fired power plants (which produce 95 percent of the nation’s coal-generated electricity) were about $62 billion. About 10 percent of the 406 coal plants accounted for 43 percent of the damages.
  • Motor vehicles generated $56 billion in health and other non-climate related damages in 2005.
  • Non-climate related damages for corn grain ethanol were similar or slightly worse than for gasoline, because of the energy needed to produce the corn and convert it to fuel.
  • Electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles dependent on the grid showed somewhat higher non-climate damages than many other technologies. Those vehicles in use produce few or no emissions, but the electricity that powers them, if it’s generated on the grid, relies heavily on fossil fuels.