June 19, 2017, by Tim Radford
Solar power can do much more for Americans’ health and wealth than coal can deliver.
Image: By Mfiskum. Marius Fiskum. www.fototopia.no, via Wikimedia Commons
Sunshine can save lives and American dollars too. US scientists have just worked out how many lives, and at what price, solar power can deliver.
LONDON, 19 June, 2017 – US scientists know how to save lives, make money and make America great again. The answer? Switch from coal to solar power. This would save up to 52,000 lives, and deliver electricity at the same time.
True, it would cost $1.45 trillion to deliver the photovoltaics to fully replace all 755 gigawatts of America’s coal-powered electricity. Right now, solar panels deliver only 22.7 gigawatts of US electricity.
But over the 25-year warranty timespan of the renewable technology, that would work out at a cost of $1.1m per life saved from all the respiratory, cardiovascular, nervous, urinary and digestive mortality linked to coal power generation.
Making a profit
And significantly, $1.1m is comparable to the value assigned to any human life in US economic studies. The researchers say that they arrive at that figure without including the value of the electricity generated by photovoltaics.
“Unlike other public health investments, you get more than lives saved. In addition to saving lives, solar is producing electricity, which has economic value,” said Joshua Pearce, professor of materials science and electrical engineering at Michigan Technological University.
“Everybody wants to avoid wasting money. Just based on the pure value of electricity of the sensitivities we looked at, it’s profitable to save American lives by eliminating coal with solar.”
He and a colleague gathered data published by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the scientific journals to calculate US deaths per kilowatt hour per year for both coal and solar power.
They then used Department of Energy costs of solar installation to calculate return on investment. Then they published their reasoning in the journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews.
The study comes just weeks after US President Trump vowed to resurrect the US coal industry and to withdraw from the international climate accord signed in Paris in 2015. That committed all signatories to work with other nations to switch from greenhouse gas-emitting technologies to renewable sources of power, to contain global warming to within 2°C by the end of the century.
The argument for solar power sounds radical: in fact other researchers have calculated that the US could convert to renewable energy efficiently and even generate virtually all its power from wind, sunshine and other natural energy sources.
And other groups have identified the potential benefits in public health that make fossil fuel energy an increasingly bad bargain.
“If we are rational and we care about American lives – or even just money – then it’s time to end coal in the US”
Importantly, the Michigan Tech scientists focussed only on deaths from air pollution linked to coal-burning power stations: they did not make a calculation about the economic costs of chronic illness linked to polluted air, nor did they estimate the health costs that might be linked to the entire coal industry, nor include the estimates of deaths that might be attributed to climate change as a consequence of prodigal fossil fuel combustion.
According to World Health Organisation estimates, around 7 million people die worldwide each year from air pollution: any reduction in coal-burning could save lives beyond America’s shores.
“Solar has come down radically in cost, it’s technically viable, and coupled with natural gas plants, other renewables and storage, we have ways to produce all the electricity we need, period”, Professor Pearce said.
“My overall take-away from this study is that if we are rational and we care about American lives – or even just money – then it’s time to end coal in the US.” – Climate News Network
Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.