Installing Renewable Energy to Scale Up Climate and Health Benefits

A new study by researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has revealed that public health improvements and renewable energy benefits could be achieved at a large scale if wind turbines are installed in the Upper Midwest and solar power in the Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic regions.

Tuning of the energy generation resulted in benefits ranging between $28/MWh of energy generated from wind in California and $113/MWh of wind in the Upper Midwest and for utility-scale solar in the Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic.

The study reported in Environmental Research Letters by the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard C-CHANGE) offers a model for businesses, policymakers, and utilities on where to situate renewable energy in the United States to increase their climate and health benefits.

The scientists designed a model of 10 regions of the U.S. electrical grid. With the social cost of carbon—which sets a dollar value to the negative outcomes of climate change—they estimated the benefits of reduction in carbon dioxide for each energy type and region.

Health benefits could be the result of improvements in air quality that minimize premature deaths, and climate benefits could be the result of decreased effects of extreme weather events, droughts, displacement of refugees, sea-level rise, disruptions to farming, and climate-related diseases.

Our results provide a strong argument for installing more renewable energy to reduce the health impacts of climate change, and the health burden of air pollution. By tackling the root causes of climate change, we can address our nation's most pressing health problems at the same time.

Jonathan Buonocore, Study Lead Author and Research Associate, Harvard C-CHANGE

He continued, “This tool can help state and national policymakers design better climate plans by understanding where to build wind and solar, while also helping private groups, like utilities, renewable energy developers, and even investors, decide where to deploy their resources to maximize the gains from renewable energy.”

The research was financially supported by the Harvard University Climate Change Solutions Fund. The study revealed that renewable energy is a cheaper method to lower emissions of carbon dioxide and that the health benefits are a significant component of evaluating the complete benefits of these projects.

In various cases, the climate and health benefits are more compared to the economic costs of setting up solar or wind power projects. People living in the Upper Midwest receive the climate and health benefits of renewable energy nearly four times greater than those living in California.

This indicates where dirty energy, such as coal, is generated, as well as the relationship between air pollution, energy generation, and people living downwind from it. Therefore, there are higher benefits when renewable energy is used in places such as the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest, where it tends to replace coal, compared to California, where it tends to replace gas.

To ensure that climate policies are cost-effective, the location where renewables are built is much more important than the specific technology.

Drew Michanowicz, Study Author and Research Fellow, Harvard C-CHANGE

He added, “If you want to get the biggest bang for your buck in terms of the health and climate benefits of renewables, investing in the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions will keep populations downwind healthier while also taking important steps to decarbonize.”

Fossil fuels used for power produce nearly one-third of greenhouse gas emissions that can significantly bring about negative health impacts and climate change. They are also a key source of air-borne contaminants like nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide, and fine particulate matter that cause lung damage, breathing problems, and increased premature deaths.

Those who are at higher risk are also the most vulnerable populations, including seniors, children, and people with heart and lung diseases. To minimize the worst effects of the climate crisis, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that the use of fossil fuel should quickly decrease to reduce global human-caused carbon dioxide emissions, to achieve a 45% decrease in carbon emissions by 2030.


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