Increasing use of renewable energy in US yields billions of dollars of benefits

17 06 2024 | 06:48Dharna Noor

By increasing its use of renewable energy, the US has not only slashed its planet-warming emissions but also improved its air quality, yielding hundreds of billions of dollars of benefits, a new report has found.

The study, published in Cell Reports Sustainability on Wednesday and based on publicly available data, focuses on uptick of renewable energy in the US from 2019 to 2022.

“From 2019 through 2022, wind and solar generation increased by about 55%,” said Dev Millstein, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “By 2022, wind and solar provided roughly 14% of total electricity needs for the US.”

During that time period, by reducing the use of fossil fuel power plants, the nation’s use of wind and solar power cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 900m metric tons, the authors found. That’s the equivalent of taking 71m cars off the road every year.

Those major climate benefits can obscure the air quality benefits renewable power yielded, wrote the authors, from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the renewable consulting firm Clean Kilowatts. To illuminate those co-benefits, the researchers quantified how much the use of wind and solar reduced toxic air emissions, focusing specifically on sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen dioxides (NOx), which are both produced during fossil fuel combustion.

They found emissions of SO2 and NOx – both linked to increased asthma risk and a variety of other health issues – decreased by a total of 1m metric tons over that three-year period.

To determine the impact of that reduction on public health, the authors “used air quality models to track the population exposed to pollution from power plants”, Millstein said. They also employed epidemiological research to examine the effects of those emissions, and quantified the benefits by using an Environmental Protection Agency dollar value establishing the value of reducing the risk of early death across the population, he said.

All told, the emission reductions from SO2 and NOx provided $249bn of climate and health benefits to the US, the authors found – a figure Millstein said he found was “noteworthy”.

The study went on to examine the benefits wind and solar offer to particular regions of the United States. Wind power, for instance, is particularly beneficial to the across the Central states due to the displaced emissions on the local power grids; the same is true of solar power in the Carolinas. It’s an aspect of the research that Jeremiah Johnson, a climate and energy professor at North Carolina State University, who did not work on the study, applauded.

“These findings can help us target future wind and solar development to provide the greatest climate and health benefits,” said Johnson, whose work is cited in the study.

He said he hopes the paper helps the public focus on the benefits wind and solar are already creating.

The public “is often focused on the challenges we face” when it comes to ecological damage, he said. “But it is also important to recognize when something is working.”