• Chart: Which power sources are most deadly? Hint — not solar and wind
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Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Chart: Which power sources are most deadly? Hint — not solar and wind

Fossil fuels kill far more people than renewables and nuclear — and that’s just counting deaths from air pollution and accidents, not climate disasters.
By Maria Virginia Olano

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A graphic showing pollution spewing into the sky with the words "Chart of the Week" in the foreground

Canary Media’s chart of the week translates crucial data about the clean energy transition into a visual format.

Fossil fuels are deadly, and not just because they are driving the climate crisis. Coal and oil cause far more human deaths per unit of electricity produced than renewables or nuclear power — and that’s only counting fatalities from air pollution and accidents, not from climate-change-driven disasters.

Coal, which generates about 35% of electricity worldwide, is the deadliest power source, responsible for nearly 25 deaths per terawatt-hour of electricity produced, according to an analysis by Oxford University’s Our World in Data project. Oil is the second deadliest, causing more than 18 deaths per terawatt-hour. Fossil gas kills nearly three people per unit of electricity — fewer than coal and oil, but still notably more than any form of clean energy.

These deaths from fossil fuels are largely due to air pollution, and the figures are based on European power plants with pollution controls, so the numbers are actually conservative. As David Wallace-Wells recently noted in The New York Times, up to 8 million deaths a year across the globe are linked to particulate pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. The other deaths accounted for in the chart are caused by accidents during the extraction and transport of fuels and the construction and maintenance of power plants.

The burning of biomass — wood, charcoal and dung — causes 4.6 deaths per terawatt-hour of electricity, again largely because of air pollution. 

It might surprise some that nuclear is the second-safest form of electricity — even when accounting for deaths caused by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 and the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011.

Solar is the safest of all electricity sources, and wind power ranks close behind. Hydropower is the renewable energy source with the highest deaths per terawatt-hour produced, largely because of a single event, the Banqiao Dam Failure in China in 1975, which was caused by a typhoon and killed more than 170,000 people.

This safety ranking roughly correlates to each fuel’s greenhouse gas emissions. Coal and oil are by far the worst for the climate, while wind, solar and nuclear are by far the best — yet another great set of reasons to ditch fossil fuels as quickly as possible and shift to clean energy. 

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Maria Virginia Olano is chief of staff at Canary Media.