Anti-cleantech companies, think tanks, politicians, and messengers like to talk a lot about renewable energy and electric car subsidies. Meanwhile, they pretend that fossil fuels have gotten no subsidies and continue to get no subsidies. That’s absolutely rubbish, but it’s more or less something we’re going to ignore in this article.
Aside from subsidies, polluting products come with massive “externalities” — extra costs placed on society that are not priced into the product. These externalities include the harm pollution does to our health, the climate, and natural resources we need. There are also externalities related to protecting fossil fuel resources, but we’re again ignoring these costs for the purpose of this article.
This article is focused on just a few externalities and subsidies related to the production of electricity — including the economic costs of premature death from pollution.
First of all, note that a previous study concluded that coal costs the United States economy $140 billion to $242 billion a year. That is far more than all of the subsidies given to solar and wind energy in the last 20 years. Between 1994 and 2009, wind and solar received subsidies totaling $5.6 billion. Adding in roughly calculated subsidies from 2010 through 2016, the total comes to about $31.5 billion.
That means that the health costs of coal in one year exceeded the subsidies given to solar and wind over 22 years by about $110 billion to $210 billion. Of course, that doesn’t equate to direct savings, since renewable energy hasn’t displaced that amount of coal use.
The new study, published in Nature Energy, has calculated the amount of money saved in the US over the last decade by replacing part of our coal use with renewable energy.
Millstein et al. estimated that between 3,000 and 12,700 premature deaths have been averted because of air quality benefits over the last decade or so. Those avoided early deaths and some other human health and environmental benefits have created a total economic benefit between $30 billion and $113 billion from renewables.
Note that the study hasn’t even included avoided health care for non-fatal pollution-caused illness and lost work days.
Coal has dropped from producing over 50% of US electricity 13 years ago to 30% in 2016, in large part because of renewables. The Millstein study concludes that the reductions have at the very least covered the cost of renewable energy subsidies, or may have saved the US economy billions of dollars in averted premature deaths.
Altogether, renewable energy subsidies are basically just offsetting costs of burning fossil fuels — or are even much cheaper than the costs that they help society to avoid. Supporting renewables is a no-brainer. Fighting renewable energy is … well, something very different, perhaps a “warped brainer.”