Increasing renewable energy use in the US brings billions in benefits, study finds

The United States’ increasing use of renewable energy has improved air quality and reduced the country’s greenhouse gas emissions while producing monetary benefits in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

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SOURCEEcoWatch
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A new report by scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and renewables consulting firm Clean Kilowatts has found that the United States’ increasing use of renewable energy has improved air quality and reduced the country’s greenhouse gas emissions while producing monetary benefits in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

For the data-based study, the research team focused on a surge in U.S. renewable energy use from 2019 to 2022, reported The Guardian.

“From 2019 through 2022, wind and solar generation increased by about 55%,” said Dev Millstein, lead author of the study and a research scientist with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, as The Guardian reported. “By 2022, wind and solar provided roughly 14% of total electricity needs for the U.S.”

The researchers found that the country’s reduction in the use of fossil fuels, coupled with an increase in wind and solar, slashed its carbon emissions by 992.1 million tons — equal to taking 71 million automobiles off the road each year.

“Wind and solar generation reduce electric sector pollutant emissions and associated climate-related and air quality-related health damages,” the scientists wrote in the study. “From 2019 through 2022, wind and solar generation in the United States provided $249 billion dollars of climate and air quality benefits based on central estimates. In 2022, the normalized benefits were $143/MWh and $100/MWh for wind and solar, respectively, or $36/MWh and $17/MWh when only including air quality benefits. Combined, wind and solar generation led to 1,200 to 1,600 fewer premature mortalities in 2022.”

Air quality benefits from the use of renewables can eclipse major climate benefits, the researchers wrote. In order to bring the co-benefits to light, they quantified the amount of toxic air emissions reductions that were provided by wind and solar, with a specific focus on the fossil fuels nitrogen dioxide (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2), reported The Guardian.

The team discovered that NOx and SO2 emissions — both associated with an increased risk of asthma and other health issues — had been reduced by 1.1 million tons during the study period.

To find out how much the reduction impacted public health, Millstein said they tracked the portion of the population that had been exposed to power plant pollution using air quality models. They also looked at disease research to determine emissions impacts and quantify the value of reducing the population’s risk of early death using a dollar value established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The researchers also looked at the advantages of wind and solar in specific regions of the U.S. They found wind to be especially beneficial in Central states because of the displaced emissions on local power grids. The same was true of solar in the Carolinas.

“These findings can help us target future wind and solar development to provide the greatest climate and health benefits,” said Jeremiah Johnson, a North Carolina State University professor of climate and energy who was cited in the study, as The Guardian reported.

Johnson hopes the research will help people pay attention to the benefits renewables are already providing.

The public “is often focused on the challenges we face” as far as ecological damage goes, Johnson said. “But it is also important to recognize when something is working.”

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