There is a lot of hoopla and hyperventilating in the press about how expensive renewable energy will be. “Redesigning the electrical grid to interface efficiently with distributed renewables will cost a lot of money,” the gloomsters (who are paid by the fossil fuel industry) all say. Yes, progress costs money. The interstate highway system was expensive but it unlocked a massive increase in economic productivity that far outweighed its cost.
Researchers at MIT have published a new study that claims the economic value of the health benefits realized by meeting the renewable portfolio standards already in place in several states will exceed the cost of meeting those standards by a wide margin.
What is interesting about the MIT study is that it has nothing to do with global warming or rising carbon dioxide levels. Burning fossil fuels — any fossil fuels — creates pollutants known as fine particulate matter. These tiny particles of soot less than 2.5 microns in size can transfer directly into the bloodstream in the lungs.
Once absorbed into the body, they promote heart and lung disease, making us sick and in some cases shortening our lives. The illnesses attributed to fine particulate matter have economic consequences such as medical bills, lost income, and reduced productivity. Lowering the amount of fine particulates would have what economists call “health co-benefits.”
According to MIT associate professor Noelle Selin, those health co-benefits add up to a lot of money — so much, in fact, that the benefits more than pay for the wind and solar systems needed to meet the renewable portfolio standards already in place in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, West Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware.
Those states were chosen because they tend to get more of their electricity from coal-fired generating stations than other US states. As a group, their renewable energy targets are quite modest, averaging just 13% renewables by 2030. The research was published this month in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
The researchers first calculated the cost of meeting the existing RPS requirements will be about $3.5 billion by 2030. But the medical co-benefits are estimated to be $4.7 billion, a third more than the cost. What rational government wouldn’t want that deal. Spend $3.5 billion, get $4.7 billion in benefits?
The answer is Ohio, which recently eviscerated its renewable energy standards after a furious assault on that state’s legislature by the fossil fuel companies and nuclear power plant operators. The new legislation slashes that state’s RPS to just 8.6% by 2026 and eliminates it entirely after that. Such shortsighted policies are a loaded gun pointed straight at the heads of Ohio residents, but the legislature and the governor are content to put campaign donors first no matter how harmful their policies may be for the people of Ohio.
Are you ready for some stunning news? According to The Verge, the MIT study shows that raising the average renewable energy standard in those states from the paltry 13% today to 19.5% would cost $5.8 billion and result in health co-benefits of $13.5 billion. Doubling the renewable energy standard to to 26% would cost $9 billion and result in benefits of $20 billion.
The projected health benefits can also be expressed in terms of their relationship to a ton of carbon emissions. The MIT researchers estimate the existing renewable energy standards in the states studied generate a health co-benefit of $94 per ton of carbon dioxide avoided in 2030 or 8 cents for each kilowatt hour of renewable energy deployed, expressed in 2015 dollars.
The team also calculated what impact putting a price on carbon emissions would have on health co-benefits. The result? Carbon pricing would deliver a health co-benefit of $211 per ton of CO2 reduced in 2030, 63 percent greater than by using the RPS approach. In other words, putting a price on carbon is the most effective way to avoid health risks from the emissions that result from burning fossil fuels.
“This work shows that there are real, immediate benefits to people’s health in states that take the lead on clean energy,” says professor Selin. “Policymakers should take these impacts into account as they consider modifying these standards.” And yet the US government is in a frenzy to extract every molecule of fossil fuels possible. What does that tell you about how your government feels about you?