Tallying the true costs of controversial energy sources

Spring 2013 ]

What are the real costs of recent and controversial energy technologies such as extracting oil from tar sands or using hydraulic fracturing to release natural gas from shale? What are the far-reaching expenses, in terms of money, damage to the environment and harm to health? In this comprehensive accounting, are wind energy or solar energy any less costly?

Researchers from HSPH’s Center for Health and Global Environment (CHGE) plan to explore these questions, thanks to new funding from the Wells Fargo Foundation. Over the next five years, Wells Fargo–which has provided support to CHGE since 2007–will give $1 million to support the center as it conducts comprehensive “life cycle” analyses of both the extraction of oil from tar sands and of natural gas from shale. The Wells Fargo funds will also enable CHGE to examine life cycle costs of wind and solar energy, which have been marketed as “green” solutions to U.S. energy needs, although their effects on the environment and on human health are often poorly understood. As part of the grant, CHGE will widely disseminate its findings.

“Wells Fargo’s support enables us to think deeply and broadly at the intersection of energy and health, and to make sure that we communicate what we learn as effectively as possible,” says CHGE associate director Aaron Bernstein, who is also a physician at Children’s Hospital Boston and an instructor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. He adds, “The grant has the potential to help inform a wide audience–from policymakers in D.C. to K through 12 teachers to the lay public–about how the energy choices we make today will affect our health in the years to come.”

Aided by previous support from Wells Fargo, CHGE has published several influential reports on climate, energy and health, including a 2011 assessment of the true economic, health and environmental costs of coal.

Karen Feldscher

Photo: Todd Korol/REUTERS