Re­new­able En­ergy Keeps Us Health­ier – and That’s Worth a For­tune

Traveling Minds - - Table Of Contents -

Us­ing so­lar and wind power in­stead of fos­sil fuel en­ergy turns out to even more of a game-changer to our col­lec­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal and per­sonal health – than any­one would have guessed.

Prior to 2007, there was only a mi­nus­cule mar­ket for ei­ther so­lar or wind power, de­spite its pre­sumed ben­e­fits. With costs high to set up and in­stall each type, ma­jor sub­si­dies were of­fered by many gov­ern­ments to en­cour­age their wide­spread use, with the U.S. be­ing one of those which pro­vided more than most. Those sub­si­dies were plac­ing a ma­jor bet that mak­ing even a mod­est re­place­ment of fos­sil fuel power sources with re­new­able en­ergy like wind and so­lar would pay off pos­i­tively.

A new study from Lawrence Berke­ley Lab which was just re­leased makes it clear that, even in the short pe­riod from be­tween 2007 and 2015, th­ese re­new­able sources made a ma­jor pos­i­tive im­pact to the U.S.

What the re­searchers there stud­ied were the four main ‘bad boys’ of pol­lu­tion: toxic sul­fur diox­ide (SO2), ni­tro­gen ox­ides of var­i­ous kinds (NOX), the orig­i­nal green­house gas mon­ster car­bon diox­ide (CO2) and par­tic­u­late mat­ter (PM2.5). They looked at how their pro­duc­tion had changed over that time, and they also looked at where they had changed most.

In their re­port, the top-line re­sults were enor­mous. The study con­cluded first that the use of re­new­able en­ergy in the U.S. just in the 2007-2015 pe­riod had cut SO2 by 1.0 mil­lion tons, fol­lowed by 0.6 mil­lion tons less NOX emit­ted, and 0.05 mil­lion tons less of PM2.5 par­tic­u­late gases. While ex­act health ben­e­fits re­sult­ing from those changes were hard to pre­cisely mea­sure, the es­ti­mates sug­gested that 7,000 un­nec­es­sary pre­ma­ture deaths had been avoided be­cause of them. The pub­lic health costs of deal­ing with those deaths, and those hurt by the emis­sions who did not die, to­taled out to an es­ti­mated $56 bil­lion.

The cut in car­bon diox­ide emis­sions be­cause of the use of so­lar and wind cal­cu­lated out at be­tween $32 bil­lion in to­tal avoided cli­mate ex­penses.

To­gether that is a to­tal of $88 bil­lion saved through the use of wind and so­lar in the United States.

For those doubt­ing the va­lid­ity of those num­bers, the re­searchers did the de­tailed home­work to prove their case. They started by build­ing a model for power uti­liza­tion dur­ing the pe­riod based on a ma­jor amount of his­tor­i­cal data avail­able through gov­ern­ment and other data­bases. They then cal­cu­lated what power gen­er­a­tion sys­tems were no longer used be­cause of the avail­abil­ity of wind and so­lar. For that they used a tool called Avoided Emis­sions and gen­er­a­tion Tool (with the acro­nym of AVERT), de­vel­oped by the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency. Next they took the es­ti­mated amount of dif­fer­ent kinds of power which were never used, and put to­gether an es­ti­mate of the to­tal pol­lu­tants that were likely saved dur­ing the eval­u­a­tion pe­riod. That also came from data pro­vided by the gov­ern­ment, for the most part. Then last they had to cal­cu­late out the to­tal health ben­e­fits based on a num­ber of other fac­tors. That fi­nally was turned into dol­lar num­bers.

So no, the re­searchers did not just ‘wing it’ in do­ing the cal­cu­la­tions. Those who want to dig into the de­tails of how they did the anal­y­sis can study the pa­per it­self that dis­cussed their work. Writ­ten by Dev Mil­stein, Ryan Wiser, Mark Bolinger and Galen Bar­bose, it is ti­tled, “The cli­mate and air-qual­ity ben­e­fits of wind and so­lar power in the United States”.

As for the geo­graphic dis­tri­bu­tion of the health ben­e­fits of shift­ing to wind and so­lar, there are a few sur­prises

that jump out at first, though they be­come more log­i­cal the more one stud­ies them.

The first sur­prise is that Cal­i­for­nia, which is in­vest­ing heav­ily in re­new­able en­ergy, is not see­ing that much in the way of health ben­e­fits so far. The rea­son is most of the shift is not from dirt­ier sources of power but in­stead from rel­a­tively clean nat­u­ral gas power plants. It is still a pos­i­tive im­pact but not that big.

Where the in­vest­ment in wind has made the big­gest im­pact in air qual­ity and health ben­e­fits is in the up­per Mid­west and mid-at­lantic states. Again, this is not sur­pris­ing when one thinks of it, be­cause in th­ese re­gions the dirty coal and other fos­sil fuel plants are be­ing widely re­placed with much cleaner emis­sions al­ter­na­tives.

In the South­east United States, wind and so­lar pen­e­tra­tion has been min­i­mal. Much of why is po­lit­i­cal, from most ac­counts. But in the end the ben­e­fits of shift­ing to wind and so­lar there, which could have been big, have been mostly non-ex­is­tent.

The last big ques­tion dealt with by the re­searchers was about whether or not the U.S. has been get­ting the req­ui­site “bang for the buck” for all the sub­si­dies it has been pay­ing out to make them hap­pen. Here there is what can only be called a happy co­in­ci­dence, be­cause at the time the sub­si­dies launched they were given mainly to en­cour­age in­vest­ment and with­out do­ing all the full bot­tom-line cal­cu­la­tions, in­clud­ing health ben­e­fits. As it turns out, wind en­ergy has cal­cu­lated out to pro­vide about 7.3 cents per kwh gen­er­ated, and so­lar en­ergy has de­liv­ered 4.0 cents of ben­e­fits per kwh gen­er­ated. That also hap­pens to be within cal­cu­la­tion er­ror of what the sub­si­dies work out to be for each type of power.

That is good news for sev­eral rea­sons. The first is the ob­vi­ous, that sub­si­dies can­not last for­ever. The sec­ond is that any in­vest­ment needs to have some rea­son­able pay­back, even if ini­tially turn­ing in a loss ver­sus ben­e­fit, which hap­pily is not the case here. Even bet­ter though is the re­al­iza­tion that as the costs of wind and so­lar gen­er­a­tion con­tinue to drop, as they have, there will be even more pay­back to those who took the risk in the first place to start com­pa­nies fo­cus­ing on th­ese cleaner re­new­able en­ergy al­ter­na­tives.

So, Amer­ica, you can pat your­self on the back for hav­ing done some­thing very good, both for the econ­omy and for the health of its ci­ti­zens. It may not be enough to put a halt to global warm­ing, but it is an ex­cel­lent turn­around that will pay off hand­somely in our col­lec­tive well-be­ing in the fu­ture.

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