Wind And Solar Can Save More Lives, Prevent More Pollution

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America’s renewable energy boom could protect more lives and prevent more climate pollution if wind turbines and solar panels were being installed in different locations, a new study suggests.

Solar and wind energy is most valuable to society when it replaces coal burning. But most of the new solar and wind capacity is being installed outside America’s coal-powered states. It’s going where the wind blows the hardest, where the sun shines the strongest, or where states have renewable energy mandates or incentives.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University compared the benefits of installing a wind turbine in 33,000 locations across America, factoring in the positive impact of reduced greenhouse gas emissions and avoided death and disease. They repeated the exercise with a solar panel, comparing nearly 1,000 potential locations.

From their paper, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

Thirty percent of existing wind capacity is installed in Texas and California, where the combined health, environmental, and climate benefits from wind are among the lowest in the country. Less than 5% of existing wind capacity is in Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia, where wind energy offers the greatest social benefits from displaced pollution. …

[T]he combined health, environmental, and climate benefits from wind energy in Ohio are $100/MWh … compared with only $13/MWh in California.

An even greater mismatch exists between locations where a solar panel can produce the most electricity and where it can deliver the greatest health and environmental benefits.

This map shows the places where a solar panel would generate the most power, as indicated by darker shading:

solar-capacity
PNAS

Compare to these next two maps, which show the places where a solar panel would provide the greatest climate and pollution-reduction benefits:

solar-benefits
PNAS

Obviously this doesn’t mean that California, Texas, and other renewable-friendly states should ease up on solar and wind. What it means is that policy makers should consider how best to help other states catch up, particularly those where injections of new renewable energy provide the greatest benefits.

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants: johnupton@gmail.com.