Health Benefits of Wind Energy Could Quadruple By Dialing Down Fossil Fuels

Good News For All Renewables

The IEA’s new report points to energy security concerns caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as having accelerated countries’ increases in renewables such as solar and wind. The IEA shares that global renewable power capacity is now expected to grow by 2,400 gigawatts (GW) over the 2022–2027 period. That amount equals the entire power capacity of China today, according to Renewables 2022, IEA’s annual report on the sector.

The report demonstrates that in the vast majority of nations around the world, utility-scale solar PV and onshore wind are the least expensive solutions for new electricity generation. As a result, as we move away from fossil fuels, the benefits of renewable energy become exponential in terms of global health. According to MIT, they could do better, even quadruple, with onshore wind energy.

More Benefits -A Healthy Wind, Health Benefits of Wind Energy Could Quadruple By Dialing Down Fossil Fuels

According to MIT, as the power of energy transformation shifts, so does individual well-being. Wind energy is beneficial to the environment, air quality, and human health. There is more that could and should be done.

The Other Exponential, Dialing Down

Wind power currently generates about 10% of the electricity consumed in the United States. A new MIT study suggests that the health benefits of wind power could more than quadruple. When wind energy is available, this rapid transition will be made possible by prioritizing emission reductions from the dirtiest fossil-fuel-based power plants.

In the study, published in Science Advances, researchers analyzed the hourly activity of wind turbines, as well as the reported emissions from every fossil-fuel-based power plant in the country. “They traced emissions across the country and mapped the pollutants to affected demographic populations. They then calculated the regional air quality and associated health costs to each community.”

Demographics

The researchers found that in 2014, wind power that was associated with state-level policies improved air quality overall. However, only about 30% of those health benefits have reached poor communities.

“The team further found that if the electricity industry were to reduce the output of the most polluting fossil-fuel-based power plants, rather than the most cost-saving plants, in times of wind-generated power, the overall health benefits could quadruple to $8.4 billion nationwide. However, the results would have a similar demographic breakdown.”

This could change with strategic rolling out of new wind energy projects.

“We found that prioritizing health is a great way to maximize benefits in a widespread way across the U.S., which is a very positive thing. But it suggests it’s not going to address disparities,” says study co-author Noelle Selin, a professor in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT. “In order to address air pollution disparities, you can’t just focus on the electricity sector or renewables and count on the overall air pollution benefits addressing these real and persistent racial and ethnic disparities. You’ll need to look at other air pollution sources, as well as the underlying systemic factors that determine where plants are sited and where people live.”

Turn-down service

The researchers looked for patterns between periods of wind power generation and the activity of fossil-fuel-based power plants. They identified how regional electricity markets were adjusting generation for renewables.

“One of the technical challenges, and the contribution of this work, is trying to identify which are the power plants that respond to this increasing wind power,” Qiu notes, (Lead author and former MIT graduate student Minghao Qiu PhD ’21, now at Stanford University)

In general, when wind power was available, markets adjusted by essentially reducing the power output of natural gas and sub-bituminous coal-fired power plants. What needs to change is prioritizing emission reductions. However, they noted that the plants that were turned down were likely chosen for cost-saving reasons, as some plants were less expensive than others.

“It’s a more complex story than we initially thought,” Qiu says. “Certain population groups are exposed to a higher level of air pollution, and those would be low-income people and racial minority groups. What we see is, developing wind power could reduce this gap in certain states but further increase it in other states, depending on which fossil-fuel plants are displaced.”

The deliberate replacement of the most polluting and horribly toxic plants must be accelerated, but until then, we must reduce the worst when the wind is available.

Tweaking power

“The researchers then examined how the pattern of emissions and the associated health benefits would change if they prioritized turning down different fossil-fuel-based plants in times of wind-generated power. They tweaked the emissions data to reflect several alternative scenarios: one in which the most health-damaging, polluting power plants are turned down first; and two other scenarios in which plants producing the most sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide respectively, are first to reduce their output.”

They discovered that, while each scenario improved overall health benefits, the first scenario had the potential to quadruple health benefits. Nonetheless, communities of color and low-income communities had lower health benefits than more affluent communities.

The study can help identify ways to improve the health of the general population, says Julian Marshall, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Washington.

“The detailed information provided by the scenarios in this paper can offer a roadmap to electricity-grid operators and to state air-quality regulators regarding which power plants are highly damaging to human health and also are likely to noticeably reduce emissions if wind-generated electricity increases,” says Julian Marshall, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Washington who was not involved in the study.

“One of the things that makes me optimistic about this area is, there’s a lot more attention to environmental justice and equity issues,”  Study co-author Noelle Selin, a professor in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT emphasizes. Selin concludes. “Our role is to figure out the strategies that are most impactful in addressing those challenges.”

Full story here: A Healthy Wind

Graphs courtesy of SCIENCE ADVANCES, Impacts of wind power on air quality, premature mortality, and exposure disparities in the United States

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