Over the past decade, the energy industry has made enormous strides in building up sources of clean and renewable energy generation in an effort to replace fossil fuels, and efforts to ramp up that trend are only picking up steam through discussions on the Green New Deal and other public policy efforts. Much of the focus and conversation about clean energy has focused on the greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels like coal, gas, and oil, and rightfully so given that such emissions are bringing about climate change, one of the most serious and dangerous threats of our time. While climate change should continue to lead towards these clean energy efforts, other benefits arise from the continued penetration of clean energy, benefits that get overshadowed by climate change.
Chief among these so-called ‘secondary’ benefits to clean and renewable energy is in the arena of public health. While the emissions resulting from the burning of fossil fuels have an inherent effect across the globe due to the buildup of greenhouse gases that are hastening climate change, the pollutants being spewed by these sources of fossil fuel generation have a serious localized effect on the public health of an area, not to mention a number of other hazardous results of dirty fuels. As renewable energy continues to get built up, ideally to replace fossil fueled power plants, the impacts on the health of residents of the area will be notable and vital. In developing areas of the world that are really industrializing at a quick pace now, namely in China and India, the type of power generation that gets built to meet those growing energy demands will likewise have a significant impact on the health and well-being of citizens.
So, while climate change takes most of the headlines, advocates of renewable energy should keep in mind the public health benefits of clean energy, which include but are not limited to the following:
Reducing air pollution
As already stated, the burning of fossil fuels releases air pollution into the air which has serious and immediate health impacts to those who live or work in the air of these sources of power generation. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), these risks to health include respiratory illness from fine-particle pollution and ground-level ozone. These risks, unfortunately, are also the most severe for the most vulnerable populations, including the sick, children, and the elderly. Further, living close to such sources of pollution is inherently less desirable so property prices are lower. The result of this is that the residents most affected by this air pollution are disproportionately low-income households, creating an issue of equity and environmental injustice.
On the other hand, renewable energy generation does not burn fuel and thus does not emit this type of air pollution. Whether it’s solar power being fueled by the sun, turbines being powered by the wind, or hydropower creating energy from the natural flow of water, renewable energy generation does not create these negative externalities from fuel burning. As such, the more renewable energy that’s built up in an area, the more quickly fossil fuel generation can be ramped down and ultimately closed, removing the air pollution and its impacts to local health.
Preserving clean water
To start, clean water resources in many areas is by its nature limited, particularly in areas that have histories of drought such as California. Typical fossil fuel generation like natural gas and coal require very large amounts of water to be used, which can put a strain on the total water resources that are also needed for agriculture, drinking water, and other critical needs. Wind and solar energy, by contrast, use next to no water resources and thus allow for clean water to be utilized as needed for other reasons, ensuring lack of water supply does not endanger public health.
Further, air is not the only natural resource polluted by fossil fuel generation, but water pollution is another problem area. Coal mining and drilling for natural gas, specifically, are huge risks to pollute natural clean water resources and any damage to those resources can impact the supply of drinking water. Tampering with a local region’s supply of drinking water might not even be noticed right away, so the impacts to public health are very real. Those issues are nonexistent for solar and wind energy, though, so the advent of the clean energy revolution can have a very positive effect on public health related to water.
While camps of people may still try to argue against the science behind climate change and turn it into a divisive issue, the negative public health impacts of fossil fuels (and, in turn, the health benefits of switching to renewable energy) are indisputable. Some statistics behind these public health risks can put it all into context:
- The World Health Organization has found that nine of every ten people on earth breath polluted air, which leads to 7 million deaths per year
- In just 2010, studies found that fine particle pollution from U.S. coal power plants resulted in 13,200 deaths, 9,200 hospitalizations, and 2,000 heart attacks, with associated health costs reaching over $100 billion per year.
- In 2015 alone, the American Wind Energy Association found that wind energy replacing fossil fuel generation resulted in $7.3 billion in public health savings
- Climate change itself has public health impacts, as the EPA found that by the end of the century, 57,000 fewer Americans would die each year from poor air quality if the worst of climate change were avoided
With all the attention on climate change as the main driver behind pushing renewable energy today, we must remember that many of the negative impacts of fossil fuel are even more immediately and locally felt. These numbers help drive that point home and should encourage even more rapid response to the clean energy transition.