A new study of smokestack emissions from coal-fired power plants nationwide ranks two Georgia facilities among the most deadly in the nation.

The multi-university study titled “Mortality Risk from United States Coal Electricity Generation,” which includes Georgia Tech, paired pollution data from 480 U.S. coal-fired power plants with atmospheric models and compared that to deaths of elderly Medicare recipients over 20 years.

It found a particular kind of pollution called PM 2.5 from coal was responsible for close to half a million deaths and twice as deadly as PM 2.5  from other sources, like cars.  

“That the coal PM 2.5 is two times as harmful is pretty surprising to me,” study lead author Lucas Henneman of George Mason University told GPB. There is some evidence from smaller studies out there that hinted at this, but to show this on such a big data set over such a long amount of time, that was a pretty dramatic result.”

The study also ranked the 480 power plants.

“We actually have a few power plants that are the dirtiest and the worst,” study co-author Francesca Dominici of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said. “And so that is going to empower local governments" to make tough decisions about what power plants stay open and which are closed. 

Georgia Power’s Plant Bowen was the second most deadly power plant in the study, likely responsible for 7,500 deaths as far away as New York state. The company's Plant Scherer was in the top 25.

CLICK TO EXPLORE: How coal pollution travels

CLICK TO EXPLORE: How coal pollution travels

Credit: Lucas Henneman, George Mason University; Christine Choirat, ETH Zurich and EPFL; Irene Dedoussi, TU Delft; Francesca Dominici, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health; Jessica Roberts, Georgia Institute of Technology; Corwin Ziger, UT Austin

But Georgia Power now says it wants to keep both Bowen and Scherer open about a decade longer than planned, in part  to power the state’s rapidly growing electric vehicle industry. 

Dominici said that points to an irony of the green transportation transition. 

We don't really know how this transition to electric cars is burdening the power grid,” she said. “And so they think they're doing the right thing, but actually they're doing probably even worse.”

Dominici said she worries that things like EVs and internet data server farms could undo much of the progress in recent years in climate resiliency. 

Georgia Power also wants to add more renewable energy sources and natural gas generation to meet what it calls unprecedented growth in the state’s manufacturing sector. The company will begin making its case before the state’s Public Service Commission in January. 

The good news? Smokestack scrubbers mean today Georgia’s coal plants likely lead to only tens of deaths annually rather than the thousands they did over a decade ago. 

The scrubbers have actually done their job,” Henneman said. “I think that's a really important thing to take from this.”

The study “Mortality Risk from United States Coal Electricity Generation” appears in the journal Science.