Renewable energy and energy efficiency projects aren’t only beneficial to the bottom line and to the climate, as they also deliver benefits to public health to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars each year, according to a new study from Harvard University researchers.
The study, “Health and climate benefits of different energy-efficiency and renewable energy choices,” was undertaken by researchers from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who developed an assessment tool to calculate the climate and public health benefits of energy efficiency (EE) and renewable energy (RE) projects. The researchers analyzed the positive impacts of these EE/RE projects at six different locations within the Mid-Atlantic and Lower Great Lakes of the US in 2012, and found that depending on the location and the type of project, benefits from EE/RE projects ranged from $5.7 million to $210 million per year, with the highest returns coming from wind farms and energy efficiency measures.
The public health and climate benefits for EE/RE projects were primarily due to “displacing emissions from fossil-fuelled electrical generating units (EGUs),” and individual benefits varied by the region, depending on how much coal-burning was displaced by the projects and how many people lived downwind of the coal plants studied.
According to the Harvard Gazette, “a wind installation near Cincinnati was twice as beneficial as one in Virginia, largely because of Cincinnati’s higher downwind population density and greater reduction in coal-fired electricity.”
Locations in Chicago, Cincinnati, northern Ohio, eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and Virgina were the focus of the study, as these locations obtain most of their electricity from a mix of natural gas and coal. The researchers examined the potential impacts of installing either a 500MW wind plant or a 500MW solar plant, or using one of two different energy efficiency measures – 500MW of peak demand-side management (DSM) or 150 MW of baseload demand-side management (which is calculated to save the equivalent amount of energy as the 500MW peak DSM method annually).
According to IEEE, solar and peak DSM tend to operate during the daytime, which is when energy demands are highest, they primarily displace natural gas, not coal, while wind energy and baseload DSM can be used at off-peak times, displacing more coal than solar and peak DSM.
The researchers’ “high resolution model,” called the Environmental Policy Simulation Tool for Electrical grid Interventions (EPSTEIN), could be a useful tool for making policy decisions about where RE projects should be implemented, in order to maximize their benefits to public health.
“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. Additionally, this research shows that the climate benefits and the health benefits are on par with each other.” – Jonathon Buonocore, research associate at Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment
The study did not include impacts of other related factors of energy generation sources, such as the total life cycle of coal or natural gas production, but lead author Buonocore suggested that he would like to evaluate these elements in future studies.
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