The climate and health benefits of wind and solar power dwarf all subsidies

Ashley Cooper

When used to generate energy or move vehicles, fossil fuels kill people. Particles and ozone resulting from the burning of fossil fuels cause direct health impacts, while climate change will act indirectly. Regardless of immediacy, premature deaths and pre-death illnesses are felt through loss of productivity and the cost of treatments.

You usually see quantified financial impacts when the EPA issues new regulations, as the health benefits of limiting pollution typically dwarf the costs of meeting the new standards. But some researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have made similar calculations, but focusing on the impact of renewable energy. Wind and solar energy, by displacing the use of fossil fuels, are acting as a form of pollution control and should therefore produce similar economic benefits.

Do they ever do it? Researchers find that, in the US, wind and solar energy have health and climate benefits of more than $100 for every megawatt-hour produced, for a total of a quarter of a trillion dollars in the US alone. last four years. This dwarfs the cost of the electricity they generate and the total subsidies they received.

Avoid damages

The new work, by Dev Millstein, Eric O’Shaughnessy and Ryan Wiser, was inspired in part by recent work done to estimate what is called the social cost of carbon. The social cost of carbon is a way of assigning a dollar value to each ton of carbon emissions that represents its share of the total damage that will result from global climate impacts. The US government currently uses a value of around $50 per ton, but recent research puts it at $185 per ton. Similarly, additional research has been conducted on the health impacts of SO.2 and nitrogen oxides emitted during the burning of fossil fuels, which produce particulate matter and ozone pollution.

So the researchers decided to create new estimates of the benefits of renewable energy, taking these updated estimates into account. They also chose to do so in a way that would make it easier to keep their estimates up to date, focusing on regional changes in U.S. electricity generation, rather than waiting for data on output from each power plant, which tends to take a while. time. while they meet. (Therefore, the job sacrifices some resolution to make the data available sooner.)

The basics of analysis are quite simple. They started by dividing the 48 contiguous states into 11 regions, as defined by the U.S. Energy Information Agency (you can see a map of them here). Next, they determined whether wind or solar energy contributed at least 3 percent of the electricity to each region. One region, centered around Tennessee, had less than 3 percent for both wind and solar, so it was not included; some of the others fell below 3 percent for wind or solar, so only a single energy source was considered there.

From there, the analysis involved finding out how much renewable energy was generated in that region. In the absence of wind and solar power, that demand would likely have been met using fossil fuels (given the pace of nuclear and hydroelectric construction, this is a very reasonable assumption). Regression analysis was used to match renewable energy production with alterations in fossil fuel generation, and it was assumed that the fuel that would have been used to meet demand in the absence of renewable energy (either coal or natural gas ) coincided with the existing combination in that region. .

Since we have estimates of the climate and health damages caused by both coal and natural gas, it is easy to convert these changes into dollar values. And those values ​​can be seen as collateral benefits of the shift to renewable energy. They do not accrue to anyone involved in the operation of the plants, but are enjoyed by society at large in terms of reduced environmental degradation and lower health expenditures.

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