Harvard Study Finds Renewable Energy Is Responsible For Millions In Health Benefits

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The displacement of fossil fueled electricity, especially coal-fired power plants, by renewable energy technologies is just as good for public health as it is for the climate, Harvard researchers say. 

In a new report published in the journal Nature Climate Change, researchers from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health write that regional health benefits worth hundreds of millions of dollars per year are attributable to renewable energy and efficiency projects.  

The researchers looked at four different energy efficiency and renewable energy installation types in six different locations in the US mid-Atlantic and Lower Great Lakes regions. They found that, while the health benefits are dependent on the type of fossil fuel displaced and the local population, it all really comes down to how much coal-fired electricity is displaced and how many people live downwind of the local coal plants.

Wind farms were found to confer the highest level of benefits. According to the study, wind farms built near Cincinnati and Chicago produced $210 million in annual health benefits. A wind farm in the more sparsely populated south of New Jersey still produced $110 million in benefits.

Meanwhile, energy efficiency projects implemented in Cincinnati produced $200 million in benefits during off-peak hours and $20 million at peak times.

In the largely rural region of eastern Pennsylvania, comparable efficiency measures produced $130 million in benefits off-peak and $5.7 million at peak times.

“This study demonstrates that energy efficiency and renewable energy can have substantial benefits to both the climate and to public health, and that these results could be a big player in a full benefit-cost analysis of these projects,” said lead author Jonathan Buonocore, per Climate Central. “Additionally, this research shows that the climate benefits and the health benefits are on par with each other.”

The reason off-peak hours see so much more of the health benefits from renewables and energy efficiency is due to the fact that coal-fired power plants are difficult and costly to turn off and on, so they operate 24 hours a day and provide baseline power, much of which goes unused during the night hours, but if you wake up in the middle of the night you still expect your bathroom light to turn on.

The highest demand for electricity is during the middle of the day, when lower-carbon sources of energy like natural gas are brought online and renewable sources like solar and wind also help meet higher demand. But when demand for electricity wanes at night, natural gas plants sit idle and solar panels don’t work. That’s when wind energy and efficiency measures make the biggest difference, by offsetting the demand for electricity from coal plants.

The EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) sets carbon emissions limits for each US state, which is expected to have the biggest impact on coal plants, which are responsible for nearly 80 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions in the US, even though coal only represents less than 40 percent of the total energy mix.

The CPP also suggests a renewable energy target to help states reach their emissions goals. The renewables targets have been criticized for not being ambitious enough, but this Harvard study is sure to help EPA officials argue that it is a step in the right direction for the climate and public health.

“The latest study on renewable energy from Harvard University reaffirms what we already knew — clean energy positively benefits both the climate and public health. And, as a result, the deployment of clean energy and energy efficiency has a positive economic impact,” Gabe Elsner of the Energy and Policy Institute, who was not involved in the Harvard study, told DeSmog.

“The EPA Clean Power Plan is a great first step towards deploying greater amounts of clean energy and energy efficiency solutions – these actions will generate positive health benefits and begin to address the climate change problem in a meaningful way.”

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