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Want to Improve Your Nation's Health? Burn Coal

By Mark P. Mills

Why is electricity so important to the world? Is it the glow of better reading light? The warmth of baseboard heat? Television? Nintendo?

Of course, it’s farther reaching than that. Electricity use is tightly linked to economic growth, for developing and industrial nations alike. Still, there’s an even more compelling benefit to electrification: Human health. And we’re not referring to the electric toothbrush or those massage chairs in the Sharper Image catalog.

Electrification is causally linked to improved health conditions and increased average life span. Consider this: The average national life span increases 10 years with a tenfold increase in per capita electric use (Figure 1). This benefit comes at a cost of about $1,000 a year per capita. Increasing electricity use by this much is no mean feat. Is it any wonder that countries seek the cheapest sources of kilowatt-hours?

Figure 1 (2464 bytes)

Figure 1. Electricity use and lifespan. A person who lives in the United States, Germany, Japan, or another electricity-rich industrial nation will live longer—far longer—than one who lives in a lesser-electrified country.
Source: World Resources Institute, OECD

On average, the cheapest source of both existing and new kilowatt-hours is fossil fuel—coal in particular. Two-thirds of global power is fossil-fueled; that figure will rise to 70 percent by 2015, since fossil fuels account for nearly 80 percent of all planned and projected growth in world electric supply.

Environmentalists see increasing fossil fuel use to power electric plants as a health risk. That’s because they don’t grasp a basic connection: Electric demand is created by the use of electric technologies. Obvious, yet always overlooked.

Legislators must recognize the positive health impacts of using electric technologies before making policy decisions. They need to understand that—surprise!—price is a factor. You cannot get the benefits of electric technologies if the market cannot afford the electrons.

The electric technologies that drive the health/lifespan trend in developing nations are easy to recognize—largely refrigeration, irrigation, sanitation, and other core benefits of civilization. But those are the basics. The important question for post-industrial societies is whether or not there are significant health benefits from continued electrification—which is to say, finding new uses for electricity. After all, we already use 100 times more kilowatt-hours per capita than developing nations. The answer to this question is critical to current EPA health policy deliberations and (inconveniently for anticoal interests) intersects with the emerging competitive (a.k.a. "deregulated") electric market in the United States.

Many sources, including the EPA, agree coal will play a leading role in providing future low-cost electricity. We can answer the health question by examining the character of emerging electric technologies. Mills•McCarthy & Associates surveyed its database of more than 500 new and emerging electric technologies (ETs) and found they are dominated by examples that will lead to a healthier environment.

Safety on the Job

For instance, electric technologies can render harmless or even completely eliminate workplace hazards:

Paint stripper. The highly toxic and carcinogenic chemical methylene chloride is the most common paint stripper. But electricity makes chemical-free paint stripping possible through powerful electric pumps to create a water "jet" that completely removes the paint.

Industrial cleaners. Acid-free metal cleaning can be accomplished with a combination of electrolysis and ultrasound. Low-temperature plasma torches can replace solvents in industrial cleaning.

Termite control. Liquid nitrogen (produced with chemical pumps and chillers) can be used in place of chemical toxins to destroy termites.

Air-conditioning and pool chemicals. Fabricating, transporting, storing, and using chlorine exposes workers to health hazards. But electrically generated ozone can replace chlorine in commercial building cooling systems, and even in swimming pool water (especially for Olympic pools and at zoos). Ozone has the same effect as chlorine in destroying organic and bacterial hazards.

Medical waste. Hospitals, medical institutions, and research laboratories all produce potentially hazardous medical waste. Microwave disinfection can reduce the volume of medical waste by more than 80 percent and render the remainder harmless.

Fire risk. Infrared dryers can be used in textile production, eliminating the use of thermal dryers and the associated workplace risk of fire as well as reduction in indoor emissions.

As for the air we breathe, electric technologies also can eliminate toxic manufacturing emissions such as:

Organic hazards. A cold (electric) plasma process can cost-effectively destroy the organic hazards in a factory’s exhaust.

Chemical emissions. Using supercritical carbon dioxide gas can eliminate the need for chemical solvents and the resulting emissions during coating and painting processes.

Combustion emissions. Using ETs reduces harmful emissions to the urban air shed. Any electric technology that replaces a combustion-based technology (electric buses, golf carts, water heaters, cooling systems, etc.) results in zero emissions of critical smog precursors in urban breathing zones.

Conspicuous Consumption

Aside from manufacturing and workplace hazards, ETs can reduce or eliminate toxins we encounter daily in indoor air, drinking water, and food.

"Sick" buildings. Hospitals, nursing homes, and office buildings are all plagued by the presence of various chemical and biological hazards in the air. Ultraviolet light systems can greatly reduce—and in some cases completely eliminate—indoor air’s biological hazards.

Meat Safety. In food processing plants, meat can be exposed to very high-frequency pulsed electric fields that destroy harmful organisms without creating a significant increase in temperature, thus achieving the effect of pasteurization, commonly used in liquids such as milk and juice.

Food Preservatives. Liquid carbon dioxide may revolutionize the food industry by doubling the shelf life of foods and eliminating the need for costly and controversial preservatives. A highly pressurized, liquid form of carbon dioxide (requiring lots of electricity) is finding its way into ice cream, cottage cheese, and other dairy products, and it can be injected into the packaging of meat and poultry. Not only is it far more effective than chemical food preservatives, it’s inexpensive, harmless to the consumer and environmentally benign.

A nation’s water supply also benefits from expanding electric technological capability. ETs can remove or destroy hazards in waste streams or remediate waste problems. In fact, they permit 100 percent recycling of waste water, thus eliminating hazard-laden discharge.

Toxic metals. Metals processors, photo labs, and research facilities all contribute a wastewater stream that contains small concentrations of highly toxic metals. Cold-vaporization electric vacuum pumps and heaters permit the separation and reuse of both the metals and the water (which becomes drinking-quality).

Conserving Resources

ETs can achieve a dramatic reduction in the volume of wasted raw materials in manufacturing (which means reduced health hazards associated with the mining, conversion, and transport of raw and waste materials).

Lasers. Laser cutting and laser welding technologies, combined with microprocessor controls, lead to dramatic improvements in the efficiency of manufacturing and substantial reductions in wasted materials.

Water jets. Ultra high-pressure water-jet cutting is used to manufacture products as diverse as diapers, carpets, crackers, and chicken. The highly precise cutting technology greatly reduces wasted material.

Chemical processes. Microwave-based chemistry promises to reduce energy use and greatly increase the speed and yields of chemical processes, thus reducing waste cost and pollution.

Spare Tires. The nation’s piles of 850 million scrap tires present dramatic health hazards whenever they burn. Such fires produce an enormous quantity of dangerous fumes and are almost impossible to extinguish. At least two emerging electric technologies, one based on microwaves, the other on cryogenics, can break down and recycle a tire’s basic constituents into oil and metal.

Aside from the pervasive, incremental but important improvements in a healthy environment, the aggregate effect of increased use of hundreds of new and emerging electric technologies will be twofold: it increases use for electricity while simultaneously increasing demand for cheap power as society becomes more dependent on kilowatt-hours. Curtailing coal use will serve to increase electric costs and erode and perhaps even eliminate the many important health benefits we now enjoy.

Physicist Mark P. Mills is a technology strategist and energy consultant and president of the research-consulting firm Mills•McCarthy & Associates Inc.

For more information or to obtain a free copy of the report "Healthy Technology Choices," visit Website www.breakthroughtechs.com.