Kill fossil fuels in favour of wind to quadruple health benefits

A major new study has identified that health gains associated with wind energy will quadruple if the industry turns down output from highest polluting power plants.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) published the results of their work in the journal Science Advances, in which the hourly activities of wind turbines were reported alongside emissions from every fossil fuel-based power plant in the US from 2011 to 2017. 

windmills on green field under white sky during daytime

Resulting emissions were traced across the country, with pollutants mapped to affected demographic populations. Regional air quality, and community cost in health terms, was then calculated from that data, with the conclusions sending a stark message to policymakers everywhere – kill fossil fuel power plants to make major gains in wellbeing and public health. 

In 2014 alone, wind power associated with state-level policies delivered an estimated $2bn in health benefits across the US. Notably, though, just 30% of those gains ‘reached’ the most disadvantage communities, backing up successive studies to say Black, minority ethnic, and low income demographics are worst impacted by air pollution. 

Based on the data available, the MIT team believe that by reducing output at the most polluting fossil fuel power plants proven to cause the most harm to public health would see those  benefits rocket to $8.4bn. However, this would be spread similarly across the population, with the wealthiest standing to gain the most – likely a result of living further from non-energy related high pollution sources, such as arterial roads, motorways and airports. Scenarios in which fossil fuel power plants are turned down based on type of emission – so prioritising a reduction in carbon dioxide, or sulphur dioxide, were still effective, but less so. 

‘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,’ the continued. 

“It’s a more complex story than we initially thought,” added lead author and former MIT graduate student Minghao Qiu PhD, who is now at Stanford University. ‘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 study found that when wind was widely available, fossil fuel based power plants ‘turned down’ their output in response to renewable energy influxes. This was most evident at natural gas and sub-bituminous coal-fired facilities, with the decision to reduce operations at these sites likely based on cost-saving. Essentially, it’s cheaper to lower activity at these types of plants than others. 

Last week, the EU published its Emissions Gap Report, looking at the progress being made in bringing global emissions down. Find out what a leading air quality expert thinks of the results here

Image: American Public Power Association


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