Burning fuel to generate electricity at power plants – fuels like coal, gas, oil and biomass – results in the emission and formation of a long list of harmful pollutants. Electric utilities also remain the nation's largest industrial source of carbon dioxide, a significant contributor to climate change.
Switching to clean, renewable, non-combustion sources of electricity – like solar, wind, geothermal and tidal – is critical for lung health. These “zero-emission” sources of power can dramatically reduce health harms and premature deaths, both in the immediate term and over the long-term due to climate change.
Health Impacts of Power Plant Emissions
Many of the fuels used in power generation emit harmful pollutants when burned. In addition, mining or extracting 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 (methane), oil, and biomass power plants also emit significant air pollutants. These emissions are particularly harmful to people living near the power plant, but also harm health hundreds of miles downwind. 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 sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions convert into particles once they reach the outside air. These particles are so tiny they can blow hundreds of miles from the source.
- Ozone Pollution. Emissions of nitrogen dioxide 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.
- Greenhouse gases. Power plants that burn coal, oil and gas are the largest source of carbon pollution, the biggest driver of climate change. Plants that burn oil and 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 power these plants can harm workers and their communities. Coal miners have increased risk of direct lung health impacts, including Black Lung Disease, also known as pneumoconiosis. 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. Nuclear power also requires fuel, often in the form of uranium, and uranium miners have had increased risk of lung cancer.
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, driving health harms and worsening climate change.
Policy to Clean Up the Power Sector
The Lung Association advocates for policies that drive a nationwide transition to zero-emission sources of electricity, and that reduce emissions from the production, transportation and burning of fuels that power dirty electricity in the meantime. Learn more about our advocacy and policy work on the power sector, and take action, with our Healthy Air Campaign.
Page last updated: September 20, 2023