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