Lower fuel costs, predictable fuel prices and green jobs are the main factors that make the straight economic case for investing massive amounts of money in new clean power facilities. Now a new report suggests that health care costs are an equally if not more important factor than the other three. Using New York green energy as a case study for eliminating fossil fuels in favor of building new clean energy facilities, a research team has calculated that the state could save enough money on health care alone to result in a payback period of only 17 years.
New York Renewable Energy, Future And Now
The new report was co-authored by Mark Z. Jacobson of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy, with scientists from Cornell University and the University of California-Davis.
According to its authors, the study is the first to factor in the cost of air pollution mortality and morbidity impacts from burning fossil fuels, in tandem with a comprehensive plan for developing enough renewable energy to meet the demands of all sectors of an entire state.
The new facilities would include onshore and offshore wind turbines, rooftop and standalone utility scale solar arrays, geothermal power plants, ocean wave power devices, tidal turbines, and hydroelectric plants.
According to the report, the bulk of the energy would come from local wind power (40 percent) and local solar power (38 percent).
Mining New York State For Renewable Energy
The first thing that jumps out from the report is that the authors aren’t talking about futuristic renewable energy technology that could take years to get past the R&D phase. All of the technologies have been proven at commercial scale or are close to commercial development elsewhere in the world if not in the U.S. or in New York State itself.
That’s patently obvious in the case of solar, wind and geothermal power, as enumerated endlessly at CleanTechnica and at our sister site Planetsave, though it’s not quite as obvious in the case of water-based renewable energy technology such as ocean wave power.
Still, the authors note that most of the hydroelectric power plants required under their plan already exist in New York.
Tidal power is also getting a workout in New York, with a pilot tidal power project well under way in New York City’s East River (the East River is not actually a river, it is a tidal waterway). Relatedly, hydrokinetic turbines that scavenge energy from ambient water pressure in rivers and dams are already in use elsewhere in the U.S., and the Obama Administration has funded a national hydrokinetic R&D facility called Riversphere in partnership with Tulane University.
In the case of ocean wave power, the U.S. is lagging behind wave power in China and other countries, but the U.S. Navy recently upgraded its wave power test facility in Hawaii and other projects are beginning to come on line.
It’s also worth noting that at least one major utility serving parts of New York is already banking on new interstate transmission lines to bring in massive amounts of wind energy from the Midwest, so although the Stanford report is focused on the potential for relying exclusively on local energy, the future availability of renewable energy from out-of-state certainly can’t hurt.
Renewable Energy Seeping Into Every Pore
The report is also significant for its embrace of the complete energy landscape, rather than focusing on replacing some kinds of utility-scale power plants with others.
In addition to factoring in vast numbers of individual rooftop solar installations, heat pumps and heat exchangers, the report envisions a future in which all vehicles run on electricity supplied by either batteries or fuel cells.
Unfortunately, that’s where things could get bogged down in terms of the timeline. Without forceful programs such as subsidies, tax breaks and rebates, individual property owners and car owners won’t have the motivation and/or the means to make the switch (though skyrocketing fossil fuel prices could help push things along).
However, the main point is that the technology to accomplish that transition is either available now, or is well along in the R&D phase. More to the point, it wasn’t so long ago that most people in the U.S. burned wood, coal or natural gas for heat in open fireplaces and had their milk delivered by horse-drawn cart, so there you have it.
Health Care And The True Cost Of Fossil Fuels
The real meat of the report is its focus on the economic gain from reducing or outright eliminating the negative public health outcomes linked to fossil fuel production and consumption.
Here’s a rundown of the research team’s reasoning:
“…air pollution–related deaths would decline by about 4,000 annually and the state would save about $33 billion – 3 percent of the state’s gross domestic product – in related health costs every year…The study also estimates that resultant emissions decreases would reduce 2050 U.S. climate change costs – such as coastal erosion and extreme weather damage – by about $3.2 billion per year.”
If that starts ringing a bell, you might be thinking about a Harvard study from 2011 that totaled up the true cost of coal in terms of negative health outcomes nationwide. More recently, a Cornell study on methane leakage from gas fields has raised the issue that natural gas might not be such a great alternative to coal and petroleum, given the global warming effects of methane and its consequent effect on both public health and infrastructure.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.