Health benefits of using wind energy instead of fossil fuels – Zoo House News

Health benefits of using wind energy instead of fossil fuels – Zoo House News

  • Science
  • December 3, 2022
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Almost 10 percent of the electricity in the United States today comes from wind power. The renewable energy source benefits the 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 cutting back the output of the most polluting fossil-fuel power plants when wind power was available.

In the study, published in Science Advances, researchers analyzed hourly wind turbine activity and reported emissions from every fossil-fuel-based power plant in the country between 2011 and 2017. They tracked emissions across the country and matched pollutants to affected populations . They then calculated regional air quality and associated healthcare costs for each community.

Researchers found that in 2014, wind power linked to government action improved overall air quality, resulting in $2 billion in health benefits across the country. However, only about 30 percent of these health benefits reached disadvantaged communities.

The team also found that overall health benefits could quadruple if the electric power industry reduced the output of the most polluting fossil fuel-based power plants instead of the most cost-effective power plants in an era of $8.4 billion nationwide wind power. However, the results would show a similar demographic breakdown.

“We’ve found that prioritizing health is a great way to maximize benefit in a way that’s widespread across the US, which is a very positive thing. But it suggests it won’t address the differences,” says study co-author Noelle Selin, professor in the Institute for Data, Systems and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT. “To address air pollution disparities, one cannot just focus on the power sector or renewable energy and count on the overall benefits of air pollution when addressing these real and persistent racial and ethnic disparities. You need to look at other sources of air pollution, as well as the underlying systemic factors that determine where plants are and where people live.”

Selin’s co-authors are lead author and former MIT student Minghao Qiu PhD ’21, now at Stanford University, and Corwin Zigler of the University of Texas at Austin.

turndown service

In their new study, the team looked for patterns between periods of wind power generation and fossil-fuel power plant activity to see how regional electricity markets adjust power plant output in response to renewable energy inflows.

“One of the technical challenges and contribution of this work is figuring out which power plants will respond to this increasing wind power,” notes Qiu.

To do this, the researchers compared two historical datasets from the period between 2011 and 2017: an hourly record of energy output from wind turbines across the country and a detailed record of emissions measurements from every fossil-fuel power plant in the US. The datasets covered each of the seven major regional electricity markets, where each market supplied energy to one or more states.

“California and New York are each their own market, while the New England market covers about seven states and the Midwest covers more,” explains Qiu. “We also cover about 95 percent of all wind energy in the US”

In general, they observed that when wind power was available, the markets adjusted, essentially reducing the output of natural gas and coal-fired power plants. They found that the rejected assets were likely selected for cost-saving reasons, as certain assets were less costly to reject than others.

The team then used a sophisticated atmospheric chemistry model to simulate wind patterns and chemical transport of emissions across the country, and determined where and at what concentrations the emissions produced particulate matter and ozone — two pollutants known to cause the Air quality and harm people’s health. Finally, the researchers mapped the general demographic population across the country based on US census data and applied a standard epidemiological approach to calculate a population’s health care costs due to their exposure to pollution.

This analysis found that in 2014, an overall cost-saving approach to displacing energy from fossil fuels in the wind power era resulted in health benefits or savings of US$2 billion across the country. A smaller proportion of these benefits went to disadvantaged populations such as minorities and low-income communities, although these disparities varied from state to state.

“It’s a more complex story than we originally thought,” says Qiu. “Certain population groups are exposed to higher levels of air pollution, and those would be low-income people and ethnic minorities. What we’re seeing is that wind power expansion could narrow that gap in certain states, but further widen it in others. depending on which fossil power plants are displaced.”

optimize performance

The researchers then examined how the pattern of emissions and associated health benefits would change if they prioritized shutting down various fossil fuel-based plants in the era of wind power. They optimized the emissions data to reflect several alternative scenarios: one in which the most harmful and polluting power plants are shut down first; and two other scenarios in which the plants that produce the most sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide, respectively, are to reduce their output first.

They found that while each scenario increased overall health benefits, and the first scenario in particular quadrupled health benefits, the original inequality persisted: minorities and low-income populations still experienced lower health benefits than more affluent communities.

“We came to the end of the road and said there’s no way we can fix this disparity by making smarter decisions about which assets to displace,” says Selin.

“One of the things that makes me optimistic about this area is that there is a lot more attention being paid to environmental justice and equity issues,” Selin concludes. “Our role is to find the strategies that will be most effective in addressing these challenges.”

This work was supported in part by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health.

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