Retiring coal-fired power plants reduces asthma morbidity

By: Guest contributor, Thu Dec 9 2021

Author: Guest contributor

Nature Portfolio is committed to publishing research that is rigorous, reproducible and impactful. Our dedicated in-house editorial teams tirelessly curate the best research for their journals, and, in that mission, find papers worthy of a brighter spotlight for how their findings advance their field. Our Game Changers series provides an opportunity to showcase these same developments.

In this blog post, Fouad Khan (FK), Handling Editor for Coal-fired power plant closures and retrofits reduce asthma morbidity in the local population at Nature Energy, shares why this paper was important, and the role the journal plays as a unifying platform for different energy researchers.

Q: This research explores how retiring or converting power plants from coal to natural gas could confer health benefits on people with asthma. Can you tell us more about the study?

FK: Coal-fired power plants emit air pollution, oxides, particulate matter, acid gases, and volatile organic compounds. Such pollutants have been associated with increased asthma symptoms, emergency room (ER) visits, hospitalizations and mortality. 

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The study took advantage of a natural experiment that occurred between 2013 and 2016, when four coal-fired power plants in the Louisville, Kentucky area retired, transitioned to natural gas or installed emissions controls. The authors found that these coal-fired power plant changes translated into reduced asthma exacerbations among the local community. 

Among ZIP codes more exposed to coal-fired power plant emissions, there were three fewer hospitalizations or emergency department visits per ZIP code per quarter in the year following a major transition, which translates into nearly 400 avoided hospitalizations and ER visits each year across Jefferson County, where Louisville is located. At the level of individuals, a 2016 emissions control installation was associated with a 17% reduction in overall counts of rescue inhaler use in the following month, and a 32% reduction in the odds of having high rescue inhaler use (defined as 4 puffs per day on average per month).

Q: Given the research outcomes indicate a reduction in asthma morbidity in local populations, how have the findings informed decision making in energy policies? 

FK: Policy impacts are notoriously hard to rigorously measure and document. We all know for instance that air pollution from coal power can be deleterious to human health. However to demonstrate a connection between specific policy that aims to reduce coal power emissions and health outcomes on the ground, several intermediary events need to fall in place. The policy needs to lead to actual coal power plant closures, such closures need to have a demonstrable impact on air quality, the air quality impact then needs to be geographically mapped to human affectees and then results need to be observed in health outcomes for those affectees. In addition a counterfactual should be there to demonstrate that without the policy the health outcomes would not have been achieved. Once such a connection between policy and outcome has been demonstrated it serves as a very powerful data-point for policy making. This is what this study provides. Policy makers can now also use the results of the study to estimate the benefits of the policy in terms of the monetary value of improved health outcomes. This makes the cost-benefit analysis for policy making much more quantitative and robust. Essentially this study gives the policy makers the ability to quantify previously externalized benefits of emission reduction policy.

Q: This research was presented as a Policy Brief, a new Nature Energy article type designed to help researchers and policymakers engage over studies that have implications for policy. Could you explain how Policy Briefs extend beyond academia and into policy? 

FK: In a bid to help bridge noted communication divides between academia and government, Nature Energy began publishing Policy Briefs in 2018. The format aims to provide policy professionals with accessible summaries of research papers published in our journal, written by the paper’s authors on invitation by our editors. Policy Briefs offer short (no more than two pages) high-level takes on a research study and its findings from a policy perspective. The intention is to provide a non-expert and time-poor reader with an understanding of the policy context and findings of a piece of research, along with the key policy messages they should take away from it, so that they can hopefully make better use of the research featured in the journal. A number of policy briefs have attracted more attention from policy circles than the papers themselves and the authors have appreciated the attention that the briefs have drawn to the paper. 

Q: Nature Portfolio is unique in that each journal has a dedicated team of editors to handle manuscripts. Can you describe how the editorial team at Nature Energy partnered with authors to summarize this research? 

FK: Writing Policy Briefs is a very hands-on editorial process that starts with the provision of a very prescriptive template to authors. The template we have developed asks specific questions and guides the author on the language and style of the replies. Once the authors produce a first draft I comb through the write-up to ensure that the language of the Brief is targeted at a policy audience. This often involves rewriting sections to eliminate scientific terminology that may be unfamiliar to a lay or policy audience. Most importantly I point the authors towards the aspects of their findings that would of most interest to policy and decision makers.  

Q: At Nature Portfolio, use our convening power to bring together communities that are tackling some of global society’s most pressing and important challenges. How does Nature Energy bridge relationships between different research communities? 

FK: One of the benefits of being an interdisciplinary journal is that almost everything we publish has significance in multiple scientific domains. A lot of the research I handle and publish brings economic analysis to bear on questions in the area of natural and physical sciences. In particular in areas of research related to energy and climate systems, questions need to be answered from a holistic multidisciplinary perspective. We published for instance some of the first empirical evidence demonstrating the impact of coal energy related air pollution on increase in domestic energy use in cities. These papers had scientists working together who had expertise in air pollution modeling, energy consumption modeling and human behavior. It would be impossible to identify such important trends without exploring interdisciplinary methods and without a rigorous multidisciplinary review process. Being able to manage such a review process is one of our core strengths. Another important area of multidisciplinary analysis is the study of extreme events resulting from climate change. We published a Focus Issue on the subject that authors from economics, finance, law, climate modeling and other disciplines. Extremes naturally emerge from events cascading across multiple domains so this kind of holistic review of the subject matter would not have been possible without the convening power of Nature Energy

About Fouad Khan
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Fouad is currently Senior Editor at Nature Energy and has been a Fulbright (2005-2007) scholarship recipient and UN Future Earth Fellow (2014). He has a PhD in Environmental Science and Policy, MS in Environmental Engineering and more than a decade of international experience in the areas of urban policy, sustainable development, climate change and cities, complexity research, environmental engineering, policy, management and journalism. He has worked on projects for the World Bank, UNOPS, Asian Development Bank, WWF, Korea Water Resources Corporation and other entities from the energy, development and public sectors. 

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