Nearly 10 percent of today’s electricity in the United States comes from wind power. The renewable energy source benefits climate, air quality, and public health by displacing emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants that would otherwise be produced by fossil-fuel-based power plants.
A new MIT study finds that the health benefits associated with wind power could more than quadruple if operators prioritized turning down output from the most polluting fossil-fuel-based power plants when energy from wind is available.
In the study, published today in Science Advances, researchers analyzed the hourly activity of wind turbines, as well as the reported emissions from every fossil-fuel-based power plant in the country, between the years 2011 and 2017. They traced emissions across the country and mapped the pollutants to affected demographic populations. They then calculated the regional air quality and associated health costs to each community.
The researchers found that in 2014, wind power that was associated with state-level policies improved air quality overall, resulting in $2 billion in health benefits across the country. However, only roughly 30 percent of these health benefits reached disadvantaged communities.
The team further found that if the electricity industry were to reduce the output of the most polluting fossil-fuel-based power plants, rather than the most cost-saving plants, in times of wind-generated power, the overall health benefits could quadruple to $8.4 billion nationwide. However, the results would have a similar demographic breakdown.
“We found that prioritizing health is a great way to maximize benefits in a widespread way across the U.S., which is a very positive thing. But it suggests it’s not going to address disparities,” says study co-author Noelle Selin, a professor in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT. “In order to address air pollution disparities, you can’t just focus on the electricity sector or renewables and count on the overall air pollution benefits addressing these real and persistent racial and ethnic disparities. You’ll need to look at other air pollution sources, as well as the underlying systemic factors that determine where plants are sited and where people live.”
Selin’s co-authors are lead author and former MIT graduate student Minghao Qiu PhD ’21, now at Stanford University, and Corwin Zigler at the University of Texas at Austin.