Renewable energy provides a chance to curb greenhouse gas emissions, lower the cost of electricity, and empower communities. It’s also better for public health.
In July 2019, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the report “Public Health Benefits per kWh of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in the United States.”
The EPA conducted this study to “help state and local government policymakers and other stakeholders estimate the monetized public health benefits of investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy.” It has long been known that the fossil fuel industry is harmful to human health, especially the historically marginalized communities who are disproportionately likely to live near a toxic emitter. Quantifying the health benefits of renewable energy into dollars might be the tool that convinces policymakers to do more on this issue.
How Much Can Renewable Energy Cut Health Costs?
The EPA report estimates the health benefits of four different initiatives: uniform energy efficiency, peak energy efficiency, solar energy, and wind energy. To align with our expertise in renewable energy, the data in this post only uses the health benefits of solar and wind energy — whichever had the lower value — to arrive at a conservative estimate of savings.
The values the report generates are “benefits per kilowatt-hour” (BPK), which are reported in cents per kilowatt hour. Here’s how the EPA came up with the final figures:
- Every kilowatt of renewable energy generated displaces a kilowatt of energy from coal or gas that would have been generated at that time.
- Each displaced kilowatt hour of coal or gas will no longer produce x emissions.
- Less emissions will release fewer toxins, improving air quality by y.
- Improved air will translate into z fewer hospital visits and deaths.
- The EPA divided the value of those reduced hospital visits and deaths by the kilowatt hours of renewable energy generated.
What Is and Is Not in the EPA’s Report
The report factors in the health risks caused by nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and PM2.5. These substances contribute to heart attacks, asthma, and respiratory diseases. However, the report acknowledges that generating electricity with fossil fuels will create health risks beyond these few: “reduced visibility, accelerated depreciation of materials (from acid rain and erosion),” and “reductions in recreation services.” These ill effects should be accounted for in decision making, but are not included in the study.
Fossil fuels affect public health outside of lowering air quality. Before their combustion, oil and gas leaks contaminate water and soil. Gas combustion and leaks in the home can contribute to asthma, or cause explosions. All of these adverse effects should be considered in a comprehensive argument for renewable energy.
Find out more about the health impacts of gas in the home, alternative technology options, and how cities can take the lead in reducing gas use in this Local Energy Rules podcast episode.
The report did not conduct analysis state by state, but rather by ten geographic regions over the area of the 48 contiguous states. Here are the regions (conformed to state boundaries, for the purpose of the ILSR study):
The health benefits of renewable energy vary by region for many reasons. Firstly, each region has its own electricity generation portfolio. California electricity is primarily generated using gas, so the combustion emissions have fewer of the qualifying health impacts (although significant evidence suggests that leakage in gas extraction and delivery also has significant harmful effects). Second, the EPA explains that there are more sulfur dioxide emissions in the Midwest, which more readily turn into PM2.5 in the atmosphere (the most harmful compound). This increases the public health benefit of renewable energy in the region. Finally, each area has a different population density. Since each calculated value is benefits per kilowatt hour, there will be a greater public health benefit in an area with greater population density. This accounts for why BPK values are higher in the densely-populated Northeast than in the Southwest, in which fewer people are affected by the region’s poorer air quality.
The results of the study come in both a high estimate and a low estimate because of uncertainty in the health effects of PM2.5. The high estimate assumes people are highly sensitive to PM2.5 and the toxin will cause more hospital visits and deaths. The low estimate assumes the opposite.
The EPA study provides results for both a three and seven percent discount rate. The data below will only consider the three percent rate, as that rate gives greater value to future generations.
See this report by Harvard researchers for a similar, but more comprehensive, prediction of the regional health benefits of renewable energy.
Health Benefits as a Portion of Electricity Prices
Our results vary by region for the same reasons as the health benefits per kilowatt hour. Additionally, the data varies by region because of the variant cost of electricity. In California and the Northeast region, electricity is very expensive. This lowers the portion of electricity price that the public health benefits are able to cover.
In the low estimate scenario, the health benefits of clean energy make up anywhere between 3% and 29% of the cost of electricity for residential customers. Health benefits fulfill the greatest portion of electricity cost in the Midwest and Mid Atlantic regions.
The high estimate scenario demonstrates much more variation. In this case, the health benefits of clean energy make up anywhere between 6% and 65% of the cost of electricity. In 12 states, renewable energy health benefits are worth more than half of the local price of electricity.
These results provide yet another justification for clean, locally generated energy. The EPA health benefit estimation model only works to displace 15% of the fossil fuel-generated electricity in any area, but there is the potential for each state to produce that much clean energy — and more.
Beyond a Healthier Future
Since the EPA’s study is not prospective, it ignores how the negative health effects of fossil fuels will only multiply as more dirty energy is generated. The EPA acknowledges that not including the negative health effects of carbon dioxide (heat stress, vector-borne diseases) means that the benefits per kilowatt hour of renewable energy are underestimated.
In the study’s conclusion, the EPA found that health benefits of clean energy can outweigh the cost of the technology in some cases. If all of the benefits of clean energy were put together, the benefits of clean energy might outweigh the costs in all cases.