Generating electricity is one of the major sources of pollution, causing smog on hot summer days, haze that reduces visibility in our national parks, and of course climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions. But adding wind power directly reduces those harmful air emissions by displacing electricity output from the most expensive, least efficient power source on the utility system–typically an older and heavier-polluting fossil-fired plant. Less reliance on electricity powered by fossil fuels means fewer emissions of greenhouse gases, mercury, lead, and the pollutants that lead to smog and acid rain.
These benefits are particularly important because much of the current fossil-fired electricity generation fleet continues to operate without full pollution controls, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (see map at the link). As a result, there is still significant room for improvement in our nation’s air quality.
During 2009 to 2011, 119.3 million Americans (about 40 percent of the population) lived in counties with smog pollution levels considered dangerous to breathe, according to the American Lung Association. While smog may be seen as a minor annoyance to some, it can have tangible health impacts.
Doctors compare inhaling smog to getting a sunburn on your lungs. It can cause chest pain, coughing, and breathing difficulties. It also triggers asthma attacks, exacerbates conditions like bronchitis and emphysema, and can lead to irreversible lung damage or even death. In fact, researchers at MIT recently found that overall pollution from the current U.S. power generation fleet causes an estimated 52,000 premature deaths per year. That works out to about one premature death every 10 minutes.
With those stark effects in mind, cleaning up our electricity production by adding wind power acts as a form of preventive medicine. Last year alone, wind power displaced 61,000 tons of nitrogen oxides (a precursor to smog) out of the air we breathe.
The transportation sector is another significant source of air pollution, accounting for one-third of all nitrogen oxide emissions, according to the EPA. And as electric cars gain popularity, adding wind power to the utility system will help to ensure that a newly electrified transportation fleet will result in improvements to air quality.
Another benefit of cleaner air through added wind power is better scenic views. Sulfates and particulate matter released from traditional sources of electricity significantly contribute to the formation of haze that reduces visibility in our national parks. But wind energy helps address that problem as well, with 87,000 metric tons of sulfur dioxide displaced last year.
Finally, although adding pollution controls to existing fossil-fired plants does improve air quality, those same controls often create a new set of unintended consequences.
For example, residues from pollution control technologies on traditionally fueled plants often wind up either dumped in our waters, or stored in massive containers that have been known to fail, or leach into the soil and watershed. In contrast, producing electricity from wind does not require any long-term storage of hazardous materials.
As we often like to remind our readers, there are always consequences to continuing to meet our nation’s immense energy demands. And no source of electricity production is completely free of impacts to human health and the environment. But as the wind industry grabs an ever-increasing share of our nation’s electricity production, we should acknowledge the positive impacts wind power has on our air, scenic views, and water supplies.
Photo credit: First Wind
Running to prevent lung disease: Part 2, September 11, 2013
Running to prevent lung disease, August 20, 2013
American wind power: Leading the way to a cleaner future, July 22, 2013
Colorado: Report confirms health, environmental benefits of wind power, November 5, 2012
Moms Clean Air Force blogger urges PTC extension, September 20, 2012
Wind energy key for Keystone State, former Pa. official says, July 26, 2012