Julie Potyraj spent several years working with community health and development programs in rural Zambia. Currently, she is the community manager for MPH@GW, the online Master of Public Health program offered by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. She is also an MPH@GW student focusing on global health and health communications.
What would it mean for public health if we switched to a clean energy economy?
First, we must consider how clean energy benefits human health. Wind and solar farms generate no air pollution, which means they do not contribute to smog and other forms of air pollution. By contrast, many conventional fuel power plants release particulate matter, sulfates, nitrates and fly ash. These air pollutants contribute to increases in chronic bronchitis, asthma and other respiratory issues, as well as cardiac health problems and mortality.
By displacing dirtier conventional electricity generation, in 2015 alone wind power helped create $7.3 billion in public health savings.
Renewable energy also doesn’t contaminate water, protecting streams, lakes, oceans, groundwater and subsequently human health.
Conventional fuels create water pollution throughout their life cycles, during extraction, production, refining and processing. Unlike conventional fuels, wind and solar energy release nothing during operation – no sediments that harm aquatic ecosystems, no methane and no heavy metals like cadmium, lead or mercury. This means renewables don’t contribute to the large numbers of the health problems more commonly seen in regions close to conventional fuel systems, like degenerative kidney disease, upper urinary tract cancers and respiratory problems.
Perhaps the largest environmental health benefit of renewable energy is the slowing of climate change, an area of huge interest for public health experts.
As the planet warms, higher temperatures increase the number of deadly heat waves, and smog will also become more dangerous, exacerbating respiratory disorders. Climate-sensitive diseases will also rise, including mosquito-borne infectious illnesses like malaria, dengue fever and encephalitis.
Here’s where the numbers come in: a retrospective cost-benefit evaluation by the U.S. Department of Energy demonstrated significant benefits from wind energy development between 1976 and 2008, including 1.1 million fewer adverse health incidents, over 1,100 fewer mortalities, more than 1,800 fewer non-fatal heart attacks, and upwards of 1 million fewer lost or restricted activity workdays.
In financial terms, a major expansion of renewable energy could mitigate health care costs in the U.S. economy by more than $100 billion.
A recent report showed hundreds of millions of dollars in public health benefits every year for states that have already installed wind energy. Using a high-resolution modeling tool called the Environmental Policy Simulation Tool for Electrical Grid Interventions (EPSTEIN), the calculated health benefits depend on how much fossil fuel power plant activity was displaced and population density downwind of the closed plants.
Here are a few examples of EPSTEIN’s findings: wind farms are saving Cincinnati and Chicago $210 million annually in health care costs. For New Jersey, the figure is $110 million.
These are just the paybacks to Americans. Clean energy also makes a substantial improvement in the lives of those living in developing countries. There are currently more than a billion people who lack access to electricity, and 3 billion are without clean cooking facilities. Instead, they use kerosene lamps for lighting and rely on biomass and coal stoves for cooking. Nearly 2 million people die every year because of resulting household air pollution. Replacing these dirty fuel sources would be a huge boon to these communities.
These studies show it is possible to measure just how much humanity would benefit from a switch to renewable energy sources like wind power. If we want clean water and clean air, we need clean power. Clean energy adoption is the only way to stem the sweeping environmental changes – smog, infectious diseases, respiratory complications and more – that will severely impact quality of life. By the numbers, building a 100 percent clean energy future adds up.