More than 3,000 utilities in the U.S. produce electricity that powers the nation. Power plants directly emit a long list of harmful pollutants and contribute to the formation of other pollutants. Electric utilities also remain the nation's largest industrial source of carbon dioxide, a significant contributor to global warming.
Power plants use a variety of fuels to provide electricity on a large scale. The largest burn coal, oil or natural gas to produce power. Nuclear, hydropower, solar, and wind, as well as biomass, are also used to supply power across the nation.
Health Impacts of Power Plant Emissions
Many of the fuels emit harmful pollutants when burned. In addition, mining or extracting the fuels can harm nearby communities and the workers themselves. Transport of these fuels can also pose serious risks.
Emissions from burning fuel. The most significant health impacts from producing electricity come from the air emissions from burning fossil fuels, in particular, though not exclusively, from coal-burning power plants. Natural gas, oil, and biomass power plants also emit significant air pollutants. These emissions include:
- Direct impacts. Emissions directly released include sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide, as well as hazardous pollutants that can cause cancer and other health problems. Even biomass plants can produce very harmful emissions.
- Particle Pollution. Particle pollution forms directly, seen as ash and soot, or indirectly, as the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide convert into particles once they reach the outside air. The latter are so tiny they can blow hundreds of miles from the source.
- Ozone Pollution. Emissions of nitrogen dioxide from these sources react in the air with other gases to form ozone pollution, the nation's most widespread air pollutant. Ozone can also spread across thousands of miles.
- Climate change pollution. Power plants that burn coal, oil and natural gas are the largest source of carbon pollution, the biggest driver of climate change. Plants that burn oil and natural gas also emit methane, another potent greenhouse gas. These contribute to warmer temperatures that drive changes that threaten health.
Emissions from producing the fuel. Supplying the fuels that powers these plants can harm the workers and their communities. Coal miners have increased risk of direct lung health impacts, including Black Lung Disease, also known as pneumoconiosis. Uranium miners have had increased risk of lung cancer. Workers in oil and gas fields and refineries also are exposed to leaks and emissions of harmful gases, including gases that cause cancer. Oil and gas exploration, drilling and storage can create significant local air pollution issues. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, can be the source of air emissions from oil and natural gas development as well.
Transporting the fuels. Moving the fuels to the power plants can create additional emissions. The majority of coal is shipped by rail, and diesel locomotives are a source of pollution emissions. Oil and gas are shipped by rail or by pipelines. Oil and gas emissions also leak from pipelines and storage facilities distributing the fuel nationwide. For more information see the report on energy Transportation.
Approved by Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel. Last reviewed October 31, 2017.