Study: Renewables Pay for Themselves in Health Benefits

Doubling the amount of renewable energy in nine Rust Belt and mid-Atlantic states could yield $20 billion in public health benefits, according to a new peer-reviewed study – additional evidence that a rapid transition from fossil fuels is not only affordable but a tremendous boost to the economy. 

In the study, published this month in Environmental Research Letters, analysts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Washington found that the greater the amount of wind and solar power on a state’s electricity grid, the larger the public benefits. The benefits can be as much as double the costs.

“This research shows that renewables pay for themselves through health benefits alone,” lead author Emil Dimanchev, a senior research associate at the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Research, told The Verge.

The analysts looked at existing renewable portfolio standards, or RPS – state mandates requiring utilities to ramp up their share of renewables over a given period of time – in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, West Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware.

They calculated the health benefits of reducing levels of lung-damaging sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and microscopic soot particles that are emitted by the burning of fossil fuels. Then they compared those benefits with what would be gained if the renewables standards were increased by 50 percent and 100 percent.

The table below shows that the more renewables used, the greater the climate and health benefits. In fact, the health benefits of more renewables increase at a much more rapid pace than the costs of transitioning from fossil fuels.

RPS Scenario Cost (2015 dollars) Health Benefits Climate Benefits Total Net Benefits

Existing Law

$3.5 billion

$4.7 billion

$2.8 billion

$4 billion

RPS + 50% over existing law

$5.8 billion

$13.5 billion

$6.4 billion

$14.1 billion

RPS + 100% over existing law

$9.1 billion

$20.0 billion

$9.5 billion

$20.4 billion

Source: EWG, from “Health co-benefits of sub-national renewable energy policy in the US,” Environmental Research Letters, August 2019

The conclusion of the analysis: “The health co-benefits of existing RPSs in the Rust Belt exceed both the total policy costs and estimated climate benefits.”  

The impacts of the climate crisis on public health are already alarming and expected to escalate. Earlier this year, the American Medical Association, American Lung Association and American Heart Association, along with 70 other professional health organizations and academic institutions, issued a call to action:

Climate change is one of the greatest threats to health America has ever faced – it is a true public health emergency. The health, safety and wellbeing of millions of people in the U.S. have already been harmed by human-caused climate change, and health risks in the future are dire without urgent action to fight climate change.

In a report last year, the American Lung Association said rising temperatures cause more ozone formation that leads to more lung disease, with more than 40 percent of Americans living in counties with elevated ozone levels or particulate pollution. The Government Accountability Office reports that the U.S. spent more than $90 billion in 2018 on the effects of climate-related severe storms and wildfires.

It is critical that we begin to gauge the true value of wind and solar power. There is no time to waste. Policymakers can accomplish this only by including the enormous public health benefits of replacing coal and natural gas power plants with clean renewable energy.  

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