Switching to Renewables May Spur Trillions Dollars Worth of Benefits in US

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The costs of installing renewable energy are far outweighed by the health benefits they would unlock, according to a new study. Those benefits could add up to upwards of $2.2 trillion.

Published in the journal Environmental Research Letters on Tuesday, the study looks at how transitioning away from fossil fuels—which spew nasty junk such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, and particulate matter in addition to carbon pollution—would benefit the economy by reducing the health burdens communities face due to this dirty energy. The authors analyzed the current use of coal, oil, and gas by region while examining what type of renewable would produce the best benefits there.

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The total benefits, which include both climate and health, ranged from $1.7 million to $2.2 trillion depending on the region. The range is so wide because some regions saw dramatically higher benefits as they depend on much dirtier forms of energy. There are also, however, different values associated with benefits that can vary depending on how much we expect this reduction in pollution to benefit people.

The model built by the authors—who hail from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Carnegie Mellon—uses other already-existing models to simulate where renewable energy infrastructure would displace power plants and their accompanying emissions in 10 regions of the U.S. The researchers also estimate the climate benefits from this transition by measuring the reduction in carbon emissions using the social cost of carbon, a metric which looks at climate change impacts such as displacement and the spread of infectious disease and puts a price on them.

“When you include health, the cost-effectiveness equation completely changes,” lead author Jonathan Buonocore, a research associate at Harvard, told Earther. “In most areas of the country, if health is included, deploying renewable energy ends up being more cost-effective than installing carbon capture on a coal plant.”

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The benefits vary by region. For example, installing 100 megawatts of wind in California could result in $4.2 million in benefits. That’s because installing rooftop solar, utility solar, and wind turbines would decrease the state’s gas production, as well as its emissions from burning biomass. However, California saw among the lowest benefits for its renewables—between $1.7 million and $4.2 million a year. That’s because other parts of the U.S. rely on energy that’s much dirty.

Take a look at regions in the eastern U.S., for instance. Due to the continuing reliance of coal in eastern regions, the health benefits were estimated to be the highest there, especially around the Great Lakes. Coal emits the most pollution, so removing it adds some of the best health benefits for communities.

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And this study is likely a serious underestimate. While the authors estimate the reduced risk of dying due to the decreased pollution, they don’t include any data on the reduction to emergency room visits or other health benefits that would result from such a shift. We already know climate change is taking a toll and costing billions. They also don’t conduct any life cycle assessments for the energy infrastructure, which may add increased benefits as this would include the extraction of fossil fuels. Another big missing source of benefits is tied to methane leakage from gas infrastructure. That alone can increase benefits by 36 percent, according to the study.

As the world comes to terms with the work required to save the planet and protect public health in light of the climate crisis, leaders need to pay special attention to energy. This study shows that the cost of energy, in particular, needs some re-assessing. If health costs and benefits were considered as part of the actual price of energy, renewables could compete with fossil fuels (even without doing that, they already are in many places). Then, perhaps, officials would stop complaining about the economics of climate change and just hurry up and fix this mess.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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