The largest coal-fired power plant in my region is Mt. Storm, which burns about 15,000 tons of coal daily on a plateau in West Virginia's Allegheny Mountains. Mt. Storm emits 13 million tons of CO2 annually, placing it 36th among US power installations. All plants owned by its parent company, Dominion Resources, Inc., emit 68 million tons annually, placing Dominion 10th among US power companies. These figures seem large, but it's difficult to gauge their significance without a standard of reference. Fortunately, the recently-published Stern Review has provided such a standard by estimating total global damage at $77 for each (US) ton of CO2 emitted. Although this figure remains controversial, no one has a better estimate. And even its critics acknowledge that the Stern Review has made an extraordinary effort to include all forms of damage from climate change.
Using $77/ton as our benchmark, we can compute global damage "bills" for Mt. Storm and its parent company: $1 billion (13 million tons times $77/ton) and $5.2 billion. respectively. To put these numbers in better perspective, let's compare them to hurricane damage scales. In 2000, the BBC's Science team examined evidence on U.S. hurricane, typhoon and cyclone damage costs at the five levels on the Saffir-Simpson intensity scale. Here's what they found :
$ Damage (BBC)
(Image of: Category 3 Hurricane Dennis Strikes Florida, 2005)
The BBC estimates show the catastrophic escalation of damage as hurricane intensity grows: $24 million for a category 1 storm; $1.1 billion for a category 3; and $6 billion for a category 5. These are global averages, of course - damage from category-5 Hurricane Katrina, the worst weather disaster in US history, has been estimated at $100 billion. The BBC estimates are undoubtedly debatable, and they could stand updating. Nevertheless, they provide order-of magnitude benchmarks for assessing emissions from Mt. Storm and Dominion Resources, its parent company.
Coincidentally, Mt. Storm's $1 billion global damage assessment is nearly identical to the BBC's estimate of average damage from a category 3 hurricane. For Dominion Resources, the $5.2 billion global assessment has the same order of magnitude as the average damage from a category 5 monster.
For the global community, the view from Mt. Storm turns out to be shocking. This single facility, ranked only 36th among US power plants, is accountable every year for global damage equivalent to the concentrated destruction from a category 3 hurricane. And the parent company, ranked 10th among US power companies, is accountable for category-5-level damage. Now expand the view to all the power plants and companies in the world, and it becomes clear why the Stern Review and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have sounded the alarm. If this damage were clearly visible and concentrated, like a hurricane strike, we would be acting forcefully now. But it's not, and we aren't. Perhaps thinking about coal-fired power in hurricane-equivalents will help.
1. These figures come from CGD's CARMA information system, which will soon go online to provide public, consistently-derived CO2 emissions information for every known power plant and power company in the world. CARMA is our acronym for CARbon Monitoring for Action.
2. Stern Review, Executive Summary, p. xvi.
3. Available online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/202344.stm For complete background information, see R.A. Pielke, Jr. and C. W. Landsea, 1998. "Normalized Hurricane Damages in the United States: 1925-1995," Weather and Forecasting, 13: 621-631 (online at http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/hrd/Landsea/USdmg/index.html).