Solar power array

Wind and solar pay for themselves in public health benefits, study suggests

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Researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California have published a study estimating the health benefits of a recent uptake of wind and solar power in the US. Their model suggests that the improvements in air quality may have prevented up to 12,700 premature deaths between 2007 and 2015.

With the ambitious Paris Agreement aiming to limit global warming to as little as 1.5°C, renewable energy is set to become a central pillar of carbon reduction strategy. A shift towards renewable energy, while having clear benefits in reducing carbon emissions and potentially slowing the pace of climate change, has considerable health benefits.

A study led by Dr Dev Millstein of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and funded by the US Department of Energy has attempted to quantify these health benefits.

Air pollution leads to heightened risk of respiratory disease, heart disease and cancer. Given that air pollution in the US is largely caused by road transport and electricity generation, increasing the fraction of electricity generated from renewable sources brings about a significant – but difficult to quantify – public health benefit.

The World Health Organisation has estimated that air pollution contributes to approximately seven million premature deaths every year, while estimates of air-pollution-related deaths in the US are approximately 200,000 per year.

Dr Millstein’s study looked across the entire US, considering the potential benefits of emissions avoided between 2007 and 2015, during a period of growth in renewables and rapid cuts in emissions from the power sector.

When building their models, the researchers looked at the significant fall in emissions of carbon dioxide (20 per cent), sulphur dioxides (72 per cent), nitrogen oxides (50 per cent) and particulate matter (46 per cent), all of which are dangerous contributors to air pollution. They took into account other changes in the energy sector which could improve air quality, such as fuel costs and regional regulations, and the variation in renewables adoption in different parts of the US.

The team’s models suggested that between 3,000 and 12,700 premature deaths have already been prevented in the US due to improvements in climate and air quality associated with the increased role of solar and wind energy.

This is equivalent to a total economic benefit of between $30bn and $113bn due to air quality, and $5bn to $106bn due to climate benefits such as agricultural productivity. Additional economic benefits would be expected due to prevented non-lethal illness and its complications, such as lost productivity.

The results suggest that the public health benefits reaped from wind appear to be around seven cents per kWh – which is more than the cost of unsubsidised wind power – and four cents per kWh for solar power.

“Wind and solar air quality and climate benefits are comparable to estimates of total federal and state financial support,” the authors wrote in Nature Energy.

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