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?
Of course, its farther reaching
than that. Electricity use is tightly linked to economic growth, for developing and
industrial nations alike. Still, theres an even more compelling benefit to
electrification: Human health. And were 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?
Electricity use and lifespan. A person who lives in the United States, Germany, Japan, or
another electricity-rich industrial nation will live longerfar longerthan 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 fuelcoal 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
Environmentalists see increasing
fossil fuel use to power electric plants as a health risk. Thats because they
dont 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 thatsurprise!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 recognizelargely
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 electrificationwhich 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
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.
MillsMcCarthy & 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.
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
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
Using supercritical carbon dioxide gas can eliminate the need for chemical solvents and
the resulting emissions during coating and painting processes.
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
Aside from manufacturing and
workplace hazards, ETs can reduce or eliminate toxins we encounter daily in indoor air,
drinking water, and food.
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
reduceand in some cases completely eliminateindoor airs biological
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.
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, its inexpensive, harmless to the consumer and environmentally benign.
A nations 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
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
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
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
nations 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 tires 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
Physicist Mark P. Mills is
a technology strategist and energy consultant and president of the research-consulting
firm MillsMcCarthy & Associates Inc.
more information or to obtain a free copy of the report "Healthy Technology
Choices," visit Website www.breakthroughtechs.com.