Lawrence Berkeley study finds wind and solar may be saving lives and dollars
Energize Weekly, August 23, 2017
Wind and solar generation, in addition to becoming economically competitive, have also provided billions of dollars’ worth of clean air, decreased pollution-related deaths and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study.
The study—which calculates the reductions in air pollutants linked to wind and solar replacing fossil fuels between 2007 and 2015, and their health impacts—estimates their positive value at around $88 billion. The range for the benefit is $30 billion to $113 billion.
The bulk of that dollar figure comes from avoiding 3,000 to 12,700 premature deaths, according to the study, “The climate and air-quality benefits of wind and solar power in the United States.” The study appears in the journal, Nature Energy.
Trying to fix values on the social and environmental impacts of generation, so-called externalities, has always been a difficult exercise. A study done by the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University in 2011 estimated that coal-fired power plants externalities cost the economy $345 billion a year, 18 cents for each kilowatt-hour generated.
By contrast, the Lawrence Berkeley researchers calculated that wind provides an average 7.3 cents a kilowatt-hour in benefits in pollution and greenhouse gas reductions as the majority of wind generation offset coal-fired power plants. Solar created 4 cents a kilowatt-hour in benefits.
The analysis looked at reductions in nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulates (PM2.5), as well as carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions between 2007 and 2015. Over the study period, wind and solar reduced the air pollutants by an estimated 1.65 million tons and contributed to a 20 percent drop in CO2 emissions.
“Wind and solar power can feasibly produce a large portion of domestic generation and in doing so, provide major air-quality and climate benefits,” the study concluded.
The researchers offered global numbers for the country, but they noted that there are considerable regional differences in impacts. For example, while 52 percent wind generation offset coal-fired plants in 2015, in the upper Midwest, the offset was 73 percent to 77 percent. For the same year, 67 percent of solar went to California.
To calculate the impacts of wind and the solar researchers had to take the measured reductions in pollutants and use “a suite of air quality, exposure and health impacts models” to calculate effects.
The question of whether these external benefits match the subsidies given to wind and solar is difficult to answer since the calculation of the subsidies given to wind and solar can be as tricky as figuring out the externalities and often have a political policy bent attached.
Congressional Budget Office testimony to Congress put the 2013 subsidies for all renewable energy at $7.3 billion (this would also include biofuels). The Energy Institute at the University of Texas put the 2013 figure at $11.6 billion, but noted that includes money from the Obama administration’s one-time stimulus plan and money that went to research and development.
The two primary subsides now operating are the wind production tax credit (PTC) and the solar investment tax credit (ITC). In 2013, tax credit programs for wind and solar were $3.69 billion, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. The PTC is slated to end in 2020, and the ITC will end in 2023.