Improving Air Quality and Public Health With Wind Power

Wind power has become one of the most widely adopted renewable energy sources in recent years, and as a result of its upsurge, researchers are looking at the wider benefits of this energy source to help inform future policy decisions surrounding energy usage.

Improving Air Quality and Public Health With Wind Power

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With the energy transition and net zero 2050 climate goals high on the agenda, it is necessary to turn more towards renewable energy sources at the earliest possible time to meet such objectives.

Understanding the true impact and benefits that come with integrating renewable energy sources onto the grid could not only help governments and industry leaders achieve climate goals but, as a team of MIT-based researchers have reported in a study published in the journal Science Advances, an increase in the use of wind power could also improve air quality and, therefore, deliver a range of public health benefits.

If a concerted effort is put in place to reduce the output of conventional major energy plants and people are more open to this renewable source, wind power can improve public health fourfold, displacing fossil fuel-based emissions.

Furthermore, the MIT team also found that as well as environmental and health benefits, there were some economic advantages to be gained from such a switch.

Analyzing the Data

By analyzing the activity of wind turbines on an hourly basis and comparing this to the emissions energy plants that burn fossil fuels produce, the team was able to trace and map the pollutants across certain demographic areas. The team covered the seven major regional electricity markets, with each market supplying energy to one or multiple key states.

The data that the team sifted through during the study was vast, spanning from 2011 to 2017, and the team discovered that in 2014 an increase in the implementation of wind power and improvements in state policies correlated with an improvement in air quality as well as generating around $2 billion USD of health benefits nationwide.

However, the team did raise the point that those living in disadvantaged communities were unable to truly experience the associated health benefits.

Somewhere between 29% and 32% of these health benefits accrued to racial/ethnic minority and low-income populations respectively, below a 2021 target by the Biden administration that 40% of the overall benefits of future federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities.

Noelle Selin, Professor, Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, MIT

Sustainable Health Driven Environmental Solutions

While the team was encouraged by the data and how wind power can improve air quality and offer a string of associated health benefits, as well as being better for the environment and more sustainable than fossil fuels, they would like to address the disparities.

In order to address air pollution disparities, you can’t just focus on the electricity sector or renewables and count on the overall air pollution benefits of addressing these real and persistent racial and ethnic disparities. You’ll need to look at other air pollution sources, as well as the underlying systemic factors that determine where plants are sited and where people live.

Noelle Selin, Professor, Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, MIT

Environmental and sustainability factors go hand in hand with social disparities and the impact renewables will have on all communities. More targeted measures are required to mitigate pollution and economic disparities and improve overall air quality.

When analyzing the data, the researchers saw that when wind power was available, there were changes in markets as a result of plants scaling back the output of gas and coal-fired power. The reason for plants scaling back, however, was likely to reduce financial costs, as reducing power outputs in certain plants was more cost-effective compared to others.

In turn, identifying the plants that negatively impact the environment and human health could help electricity-grid operators and state regulators understand what areas need to be targeted to help meet certain policy goals.

Furthermore, the application of the data that the researchers were able to harvest led to the creation of various scenarios, as laid out in the study, which could provide effective strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Moreover, this could help boost the overall impact of sustainable wind power solutions while improving air quality and public health.

References and Further Reading

Qiu, M., Zigler, C.M. and Selin, N.E. (2022) “Impacts of wind power on air quality, premature mortality, and exposure disparities in the United States,” Science Advances, 8(48). Available at: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.abn8762

Chu, J. (2022) A healthy wind, MIT News | Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Available at: https://news.mit.edu/2022/wind-health-impact-1202

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David J. Cross

Written by

David J. Cross

David is an academic researcher and interdisciplinary artist. David's current research explores how science and technology, particularly the internet and artificial intelligence, can be put into practice to influence a new shift towards utopianism and the reemergent theory of the commons.

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