Ready for good news about climate change and our health? The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have some for us in a recent study, which finds that clean, renewable solar energy is a winner for our climate and anyone who likes to breathe clean air.
In 2015, solar accounted for about 1 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. The researchers considered an ambitious, but achievable future in which we install enough solar to meet 27 percent of the country’s electricity demand by 2050. Here’s what they estimated could happen between 2015 and 2050:
- 3.8 million fewer metric tons of sulfur dioxide pollution. Sulfur dioxide can cause breathing problems and make existing heart conditions worse, especially in children, older adults, and people with asthma.
- 5.1 million fewer metric tons of nitrogen oxide pollution. Nitrogen oxides are a key building block of ozone smog, a dangerous pollutant that can be deadly even at low levels.
- 0.6 million fewer metric tons of fine particle pollution, including soot. Like sulfur dioxide and smog, particle pollution can have a range of health effects from wheezing and coughing, to death.
Taken together, cleaning up our air with solar energy could prevent up to 30,800 hospital admissions and 59,000 premature deaths from 2015 to 2050.
There’s more: High levels of solar energy by 2050 also could avoid 8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution, the equivalent of taking nearly 1.7 billion cars off the road for a year. Driving down levels of carbon pollution will help reduce illnesses and deaths from extreme heat, contaminated water, and other climate-related health threats.
The health benefits of cleaner electricity aren’t just sunny speculation. Washington, D.C. and 29 states around the country have already taken action to clean up the air by requiring electric utilities to increase their use of wind, solar, and other forms of renewable energy. A January 2016 analysis from NREL and LBNL found that nationwide, these state policies slashed many thousands of tons of air pollution, prevented up to 1,100 early deaths, and produced an estimated $2.6 to $9.9 billion in health and environmental benefits in 2013 alone.
Slowly but surely, our country is moving in the direction of cleaner energy, cleaner air, and a safer climate, and that transition is poised to rapidly accelerate. Let’s make sure our state and federal leaders keep working to create a brighter, healthier future for all.