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Renewable power pays for itself with better health

A new study adds to a growing body of work suggesting that the health benefits of moving away from fossil fuels are often greater than the costs of doing so.
September 3, 2019

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Fighting climate change is only one reason to switch to renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. In many U.S. states, renewable energy infrastructure is also a powerful investment in public health.

For example, across 10 U.S. Rust Belt states policies known as renewable portfolio standards will require an average of 13% of electricity to be generated from renewable sources by 2030.

Building out that renewable infrastructure will cost $3.5 billion and yield $2.8 billion in savings from avoided climate change impacts, according to an analysis published August 12 in in Environmental Research Letters. But it will also result in $4.7 billion in health benefits from avoided medical bills and lost wages.

The study adds to a growing body of work suggesting that the health benefits of moving away from fossil fuels are often greater than the costs of doing so.

That’s because phasing out fossil fuels also tends to result in better air quality. Burning fossil fuels releases a variety of air pollutants, the most harmful of which is a kind of fine soot known as PM2.5. This substance has been linked to serious health problems such as asthma, lung cancer, heart attack, and stroke.

The states included in the analysis are Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, West Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware. Many of these states currently generate a lot of their electricity from coal – a particularly prominent source of PM2.5.

Researchers pulled together a series of existing models, drawing on data from a variety of U.S. government agencies, to estimate the economic, air quality, human health, and climate change effects of renewable portfolio standards.

They found that if the states strengthened their renewable policies, the cost-benefit picture would look even better, because the policies’ health benefits increase more rapidly than their costs.

If Rust Belt states required 20% renewable power on average by 2030, this would yield $6.4 billion in climate benefits and $13.5 billion in health benefits, at a cost of just $5.8 billion.

If the states doubled their 2030 renewable power commitment to 26%, this would yield $9.5 billion in climate benefits and $20.0 billion in health benefits, with a price tag of $9.1 billion.

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Overall, the three scenarios yield health benefits of $94, $120, and $119 respectively per ton of carbon emissions avoided, the researchers calculated. Each kilowatt hour of new renewable energy generated has health benefits of 8¢, 12¢, or 13¢, depending on the scenario.

The researchers also investigated what would happen if states implemented a cap-and-trade system of carbon pricing designed to reduce emissions the same amount as the most stringent renewable portfolio standard scenario. Many economists say that carbon pricing is the most efficient way to reduce emissions.

The analysis supports this view, suggesting that the carbon price would result in $9.5 billion in climate benefits and a whopping $29.7 billion in health benefits, at a cost of $6.4 billion.

But there are downsides to the carbon pricing route. Carbon pricing often faces political opposition, while renewable portfolio standards tend to be popular with the general public. In addition, the carbon price doesn’t result in any greater renewable power generation than the current policy. Instead, most of the reduction in emissions and air pollution is due to switching power generation from coal to natural gas. And building a lot of new natural gas infrastructure might not ultimately be the best strategy for deep decarbonization.

The new study is one of the first to investigate the air quality benefits of state-level climate policies in the U.S. The finding that states can make a difference in reducing carbon emissions and providing cleaner air for their residents is good news given that national climate action is unlikely under the Trump Administration.

On the other hand, action at the state level isn’t guaranteed either: in July, Ohio rolled back its renewable portfolio standard, placing even the lowest tier of health benefits calculated in the study in doubt.

Source: Dimanchev E.G. et al.Health co-benefits of sub-national renewable energy policy in the US.” Environmental Research Letters 2019.

Image: Based on an image from RF123.

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