Health Benefits, Cost Savings Show Renewables Make Good Policy Sense

There are so many indisputable facts that support the development of renewable energy and the implementation of energy efficiency measures – more jobs, fewer emissions, improved energy security. But the point that is likely to be the most resonant with policy makers is the bottom line. There is nothing an elected official likes more than to tell constituents of his or her efforts to save taxpayers money.

So recent research published online in Nature Climate Change should generate some attention among those who have the job of developing energy policy, whether it’s at the federal, state or local levels. Conducted by analysts at Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, the study shows that renewable energy and energy efficiency projects save millions in health care costs.

Generating electricity from low-carbon energy sources and cutting energy demand reduces the need for fossil fuel power generation. That, in turn, decreases emissions of harmful gases such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide. The Harvard team developed an assessment tool that calculated the monetized public health and climate benefits of a wind and a solar energy project and two energy-efficiency strategies implemented in the Mid-Atlantic and Lower Great Lakes region in 2012.

The team concluded that the benefit of implementing those projects and strategies in those specific locations ranged from $5.7 million to $210 million a year, depending on the project type and location. They suggest that their tool could be used to make decisions about which energy and environmental policies to implement across the United States.

It should be noted that while all the low-carbon energy projects reduced greenhouse gas emissions, the results varied by location. For example, 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, magnifying the effects on human health. A solar installation near Cincinnati was nearly three times as beneficial as one near Chicago because it displaced much coal with greater sulfur dioxide emissions.

Even with the variability, the bottom line is still improved in all cases. So, while policies such as production and investment tax credits (PTC/ITC) may come with some costs, they more than make up the outlays by producing energy that saves on those costs many times over in the form of health care savings.

And there is the actual human element of this target. An earlier analysis done by some of the same researchers showed that by reducing emissions as proposed by EPA’s Clean Power Plan – the administration has made clear that the implementation of renewable power alternatives, including solar, wind and biomass, will help states meet their respective emission-reduction targets laid out in the plan ‑ an expected 3,500 premature deaths would be averted in the United States every year, with a range of 780 to up to 6,100. It would also avert more than a thousand heart attacks and hospitalizations annually from air pollution-related illness.

There are debates going on in Congress over legislation that would extend a number of renewable energy tax credits, as well as bills that would enhance federal energy efficiency efforts. Some state lawmakers have successfully held off misguided efforts to roll back Renewable Portfolio Standards that set certain percentages of renewable electricity that utilities must generate, while policy makers in other states are actually building on their energy diversity with strengthened policies that promote renewables.

And there are states like Utah, where a recent Salt Lake Tribune editorial points out that despite “wide-open spaces, a fair amount of wind and lots and lots of sunshine,” the state is failing to “actively position…itself for an energy business that is not stuck in the past.” Given its natural resources, Utah should be “a national leader in the diversification of its energy portfolio” as called for by the Tribune in its message to state legislators.

An obvious selling point for renewables in all of these policy arenas is the bottom line. Renewable energy advocates armed with findings like those of the Harvard team should carry these arguments to lawmakers and regulators and make clear that wind, solar and biomass should be included in an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy. While promoting better public health, a diverse energy program that includes renewables just makes good economic sense.

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