US could save billions in health costs if it changed wind energy strategy

Socio-economic disparities between who benefits from new plants still remain, say MIT researchers

The health benefits of replacing fossil fuel-burning power plants with wind energy are quantifiable, says the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but if the US got more choosy about which plants it switches off in favor of wind, those benefits could quadruple.

Traditional power plants are regularly scaled down when wind energy is plentiful, but the researchers behind the study said picking which of them to turn off is often based on cost effectiveness, not which plants produce the most pollution.

The MIT team examined historical data on hourly wind turbine activity and emissions reports from fossil fuel-based power plants across the US from between 2011 and 2017. Based on their analysis, they concluded that wind power associated with state-level policies generally improved air quality, resulting in approximately $2 billion in health benefits (through cost savings) across the US.

According to the study, models that swapped out known-curtailed power plants for ideal curtailment made that number jump considerably, leading to $8.4 billion in health benefits across the US. "Prioritizing health is a great way to maximize benefits in a widespread way across the US, which is a very positive thing," said MIT professor and study co-author Noelle Selin. 

Unfortunately, Selin also pointed out another thing the team found across the course of its study: No matter how they tried to adjust their models, racial, ethnic and economic disparities in air pollution benefits persisted.

Easy, breezy, pollution-filled climate map

Using historic data, the MIT team developed a climate model that used atmospheric chemistry to model wind patterns and the distribution of emissions across the country, with a focus on fine particulates and ozone. US census data was added to the model in order to show how pollution affected different populations. 

Scenarios in which plants were curtailed in favor of wind energy were adjusted in three ways: To turn down plants that produce the most sulfur dioxide, those that produce the most carbon dioxide, and those that were generally considered "the most health-damaging." All three scenarios showed an improvement, but the latter was where the quadrupled health savings appeared. 

Unfortunately, low-income and minority communities didn't benefit as much; just like in the original data that showed only 30 percent of health benefits reaching disadvantaged communities, discrepancies remained.

"We got to the end of the road and said, there's no way we can address this disparity by being smarter in deciding which plants to displace," Selin said.

It's unreasonable to expect such a model to achieve perfection, and MIT's definitely does not. What it does do is offer a path forward that accounts not just for cost savings, but also for health benefits when considering power plant curtailment as renewables become more central to the grid. 

"Our role is to figure out the strategies that are most impactful in addressing those challenges," Selin said. The study doesn't have any specific recommendations to make, outside of saying "more targeted measures are needed" to avoid disparities. 

It does provide a target, as soft as it may be, in noting that the US government said in January 2021 that "40 percent of the overall benefits of certain federal investments, including investments in the areas of clean energy, should flow to disadvantaged communities."

That's just a 10 percent difference in what the study noted versus what the government's target was stated to be, and Selin has an idea where to find some of those sources: Outside of the electricity sector. 

"In order to address air pollution disparities … look at other air pollution sources, as well as the underlying systemic factors that determine where plants are sited and where people live," Selin said. ®

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