Energy’s Deathprint

Although all energy sources have achieved significant improvements in employee protection and emission moderation in recent years, energy production is unfortunately still (too) often a dangerous business. No energy source is exempt from fatal accidents, but there are extreme differences in the degree of danger.

Deaths per kWh Energy Production

The death rate in the energy industry is often calculated in the number of deaths per billion or trillion KWh of generated energy. These figures will never be precise, as they are made up of accidents in mines, construction sites, supply chains and the estimated death rate from air pollution. Nevertheless, all the statistics are at least consistent in ranking. This page uses figures published by Forbes in 2018 based on deaths per produced billion kWh over the last 40 years.

Coal by far the deadliest source

The results show that fossil fuels clearly lag behind renewable energy sources and nuclear energy. By far the most dangerous part is the extraction and combustion of coal. Recent accidents in coal mines together with the high level of air pollution are responsible for those findings. The impact of coal on global health care systems has been significant in not just deaths but in non-lethal health effects and lost days of work, too. Forbes calculates around 100 coal power related deaths per billion kWh energy.

The second and third deadliest energy sources are the oil business and biomass. Both energy sources are responsible for high CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions. The renewable energy source biomass may come as a surprise and shows that “renewable” is not the same as “green energy”. Poorer regions, in particular, are heavily dependent on biomass. Current estimates suggest that 2 billion people still depend on biomass for heating and cooking with firewood, dung and charcoal. The WHO estimates that around four million people die every year from illnesses related to household air pollution.

Gas and renewables with a better footprint

Gas (4 deaths/billion kWh) and hydropower (1.4 deaths/billion kWh) are already significantly healthier, mainly due to lower greenhouse gas emissions. However, they cannot compete with the new renewable energy sources and nuclear power (but we will come to that in a moment). Solar energy (0.44 deaths/billion kWh) and wind energy (0.15 deaths/billion kWh) are several hundred times healthier than coal power. Accidents happen primarily during the production process. To our knowledge, deaths caused by toxic waste products (for example in solar panels) are not (yet) included in the statistics. And it may sound paradoxical but toxic waste is a good keyword to introduce the safest source for energy: Nuclear Power Plants.

Nuclear power: The safest source for energy production

The safest way to generate energy is nuclear energy, with an estimated 0.09 deaths per billion kWh. And this statistic does include Chernobyl and Fukushima – without these two reactor accidents, the figure would be even lower. This is mainly because relatively few employees have to be deployed for relatively much energy produced. Moreover, nuclear power is clean and produces almost no emissions – apart from nuclear waste, but that’s another story.

Case Study Germany

These statistics may surprise some readers and show that subjective perception does not always correspond to reality.
The German Energy Strategy must also be viewed from this perspective, which aims to phase out nuclear power by 2022 but allows coal-fired power plants to continue operating well into the 2030s. From an environmental point of view and for the protection of the German people, this strategy cannot be justified.
For German politicians, two other arguments were more important:

1) The decision to phase out nuclear power was taken in 2011, a few days after Fukushima when the public mood was strongly against nuclear power.

And 2) economic arguments prevent an earlier coal stop in Germany, too many jobs depend on it and the alternatives are too expensive.
In order to avoid a supply bottleneck in the future, Germany, therefore, supports renewable energy sources on a large scale and would like to connect a new gas pipeline from Russia to its supply network (Nord Stream 2). However, the gas project is heavily criticised by many European countries and the USA – Germany would make itself too dependent on Russia, the critics say.