With climate change continuing to be a growing problem, renewable energy sources are needed now more than ever. Every day new technology is being developed. Any shift in how things are done results in a transformation in the health of people. What are these? Will they be more positive or negative?
One thing that is becoming abundantly clear is that human activity, such as burning fossil fuels to create electricity, is overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. These gases get trapped in the stratospheric ozone, acting like a blanket, trapping heat. In the United States, close to 29% percent of global warming emissions come from the electricity sector. The result is significant, harmful impacts on the environment that are affecting humans. These changes include stronger, more frequent storms, droughts, acid rain, smog, and sea-level rise.
According to the Government Accountability Office, the US spent more than $90 billion in 2018 on the effects of climate-related severe storms and wildfires. Frequent extreme weather events will promote health disparities and inequities among vulnerable populations. Ground-level, or tropospheric ozone, is the layer that affects us daily. Problems arise by combining heat, sunlight, and volatile organic compounds — specifically human-made chemicals used and produced to manufacture paints, pharmaceuticals, and refrigerants. Ground-level can cause various health problems, like coughing, throat irritation, airway inflammation, reduced lung function, and damaged lung tissue.
Fossil fuels, such as oil, gas, and coal, are considered nonrenewable sources of energy because they’re only available in limited amounts and take a long time to replenish. Many nonrenewable energy sources endanger the environment or human health, which is why they’re also considered to be dirty sources of energy. The air and water pollution emitted by coal and natural gas plants are linked to breathing problems, neurological damage, heart attacks, cancer, and premature death.
One study, published in 2018, discovered a connection between county-level air pollution and the prevalence of chronic kidney disease among Medicare recipients. A study in Spain found links between increased air pollution and depression in a population over five years. In recent years, many air pollution studies focus on low levels, or really low levels, of exposure to air pollution, like those found in many areas of Europe and the US. Researchers in Sweden found associations between low levels of air pollution and ischemic heart disease in all participants and strokes in women.
The American Medical Association, American Lung Association, American Heart Association, and 70 other professional health organizations/academic institutions stated: “Climate change is one of the greatest threats to health America has ever faced – it is a true public health emergency. The health, safety, and wellbeing of millions of people in the US have already been harmed by human-caused climate change, and health risks in the future are dire without urgent action to fight climate change.”
The American Lung Association says that more than 40% of Americans live in counties with elevated ozone levels or particulate pollution. A Harvard University study estimated the life cycle costs and public health effects of coal to be $74.6 billion every year.
Renewable energy is often referred to as clean energy and comes from natural sources or processes that are constantly replenished. Renewable energy sources don’t release toxic gases. While many people view renewable energy as new technology, harnessing nature’s power has long been used for heating, transportation, and lighting. As innovation brings down costs, renewable energy is starting to seem like an option for the future. This means that renewables are increasingly displacing fossil fuels in the power sector.
In 2020, renewable energy provided about 12% of total US energy consumption, and about 20% of total US electricity generation was from renewable energy sources. Since renewable energy systems are distributed over large geographical areas, like solar or wind farms, they’re less prone to large-scale failure. So, a severe weather event in one location will not cut off power to an entire region. If some of the equipment in the system is damaged, the rest can typically continue to operate.
Types of Renewable Energy
There are several types of renewable energy. One that most people know about is solar. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, “more energy from the sun falls on the earth in one hour than is used by everyone in the world in one year.” Why not harness this power? Currently, solar supplies a little more than 1% of US electricity generation.
Solar, or photovoltaic (PV), cells are made from silicon or other materials that transform sunlight directly into electricity. Solar farms can generate power for thousands of homes. As long as they’re responsibly sited, most solar panels have few environmental impacts beyond the manufacturing process. One great example is floating solar farms (floatovoltaics) can be an effective use of wastewater facilities and bodies of water that aren’t ecologically sensitive.
Another benefit is that solar is scalable, which means the sun’s rays can power a whole house—whether through PV cell panels or passive solar home design. In fact, some solar-powered homes generate more electricity than the homeowner can consume so that they can sell it to the power grid. To use solar at night, batteries are used to store the energy.
Another well-known renewable energy source is wind. It accounts for a little more than 6% of US power generation. Furthermore, it has become the cheapest energy source in many parts of the country because turbines can be placed anywhere with high wind speeds or even offshore in open water. Many options are now available for individual homeowners to site, install, and maintain wind turbines for personal use.
Currently, the largest renewable energy source for electricity in the US is hydropower, which relies on water, typically fast-moving, in a large river or rapidly descending from a high point and converts the force into electricity by spinning a generator’s turbine blades. This is known as conventional hydropower. Some concern with mega-dams is that they divert and reduce natural flows, restricting access for animal and human populations that rely on rivers. Small hydroelectric plants, when carefully managed, don’t cause as much environmental damage.
The other type of hydropower is pumped storage systems that use and generate electricity by moving water between two reservoirs at different elevations. This has far less impact on the environment. One concern for all kinds of power generation is water scarcity. This includes nonrenewable power plants because they depend on having sufficient water for cooling, which means that severe droughts and heat waves can put electricity generation at risk.
Biomass is organic material that comes from non-fossilized plants and animals, including crops, waste wood, and trees. Wood and wood waste, such as wood pellets, wood chips, and residues from lumber, pulp/paper, and furniture mills, are the largest biomass energy sources in the US. When burned, it releases heat that can generate electricity with a steam turbine. It’s thought of as a clean, renewable fuel and a greener alternative to coal and other fossil fuels for producing electricity.
However, recent studies show that many forms of biomass have higher carbon emissions than fossil fuels. There are also negative consequences for biodiversity. Similar to biomass are biofuels, which include ethanol and biodiesel. Most of the ethanol used in the US is produced from corn. Biodiesel is made from grain oils and animal fats.
Municipal solid waste (MSW) is garbage that contains biomass materials (ex. paper, cardboard, food scraps, grass clippings, leaves, wood, and leather products) and nonbiomass combustible materials (mainly plastics and other synthetic materials made from petroleum). These are burned in waste-to-energy plants to generate electricity. Many landfills across the country use this process.
Geothermal energy uses the heat of the earth’s core, which is about as hot as the sun’s surface because of the slow decay of radioactive particles in rocks at the center of the planet. By drilling deep wells, very hot underground water is brought to the surface and pumped through a turbine to create electricity. If geothermal plants pump the steam and water they use back into the reservoir, they have low emissions. Typically, these plants are sited where a reservoir naturally occurs. While there are ways to create geothermal plants in other locations, there are concerns that they may increase the risk of earthquakes.
Geothermal technology functions similarly to the coils at the back of your fridge, which remove heat from the interior to keep foods fresh and cool. The goal is to use the technology in a whole house. This could be accomplished by geothermal or geo-exchange pumps, which use the earth’s constant temperature (a few feet below the surface) to cool homes in summer and warm houses in winter. These systems can be initially expensive to install but typically pay off within ten years. As an added benefit, they’re quieter, have fewer maintenance issues, and last longer than traditional air conditioners.
A newer renewable energy source that is being explored is tidal and wave energy. The ocean will always be ruled by the moon’s gravity, which makes harnessing its power an attractive option. However, there are concerns about some approaches being harmful to wildlife.
Renewable Energy Research Findings
Recent studies are looking at how renewable energy might change things. A study by the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) looked at the probability of generating 80% of the country’s electricity from renewable sources by 2050 and found that it could help reduce the electricity sector’s emissions by approximately 81%.
The effects of air pollution have been studied for decades, but evidence for its adverse impact on health has grown in recent years. An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study from 2015 found that by the year 2100 if the worst effects of climate change were averted, 57,000 fewer Americans would die each year.
A new study by Harvard University supports this. It found that regional haze and other pollution can be reduced by increased use of renewables, possibly saving lives in the process. Researchers also found that energy efficiency measures and low-carbon energy sources can save a region between $5.7 million and $210 million annually (based on the accepted dollar value of human life). The study used several different computer models to estimate power plant emissions’ cost to public health.
The benefits depend on the type of low-carbon energy involved and the population density of the area surrounding a coal-fired power plant whose emissions are reduced by a clean energy project. The best way to do this was by building wind farms because they operate at off-peak times, like at night and during the spring and fall.
According to a new peer-reviewed study, analysts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Washington found doubling the amount of renewable energy in nine Rust Belt and mid-Atlantic states could yield $20 billion in public health benefits. The study focused on this region because it tends to have poorer air quality, a characteristic linked to its greater reliance on coal. The research discovered that the greater the amount of wind and solar power on a state’s electricity grid, the larger the public benefits. In some cases, as much as double the costs.
The analysts looked at existing renewable portfolio standards (RPS) of ten states who have mandates requiring utilities to ramp up their share of renewables over a given period. Then, they calculated the health benefits of reducing levels of lung-damaging sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and microscopic soot particles emitted by the burning of fossil fuels. A large amount of evidence shows how these can adversely affect respiratory and cardiovascular health.
Next, the analysts compared those benefits with what would be gained if the renewables standards were increased by 50% and 100%. The data shows that those states could see $4.7 billion in health benefits in 2030 if they stick with current renewable energy standards, which is about a 34% return on the $3.5 billion price tag associated with building out the required infrastructure.
The research team projected even more significant health benefits if states enact carbon pricing, which is a market-based climate strategy that would entail capping the amount of carbon companies can put out and allowing them to trade carbon credits with each other. The caveat is that this is more politically volatile compared to renewable portfolio standards. It’s important to note that renewable portfolio standards are already widely implemented across 29 states, the District of Columbia, as well as in the European Union, China, and India.
What Can Be Done to Increase Renewable Energy Use?
The price for creating clean energy technology is dropping, which means the price for electricity generated by them is as well. Like the solar investment tax credit, government policies help reduce the cost of renewable energy resources even further. Advocates and researchers agree that governments should choose to focus on incentivizing renewable energy. By doing this, some countries, like Denmark at 30%, have increased their renewable energy use rates. A more recent example is Germany, which has achieved nearly 52% renewable energy during the first three months of 2020.
Policy should focus on urban areas (where you expect to have air pollution levels exceeding standards) and rural areas (where there’s air pollution from agriculture and other sources). Another benefit of prioritizing renewable energy is that it can improve national security by reducing a country’s reliance on exports from fossil fuel-rich nations.
One area that is ripe for improvements in renewable energy are hospitals. They frequently embrace cutting-edge technology to improve patient care and become more accessible. However, this consumes a lot of power. So, renewables’ impact on the medical sector could be transformative. The industry accounts for 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the US. Also, medical organizations generate a considerable amount of waste.
While renewable energy won’t lessen the waste problem, it’ll help mitigate its impact. With renewables, hospitals would generate much of their energy instead of buying it from a utility company. For instance, solar windows can generate green power while providing more natural light. This is helpful because studies show that patients exposed to natural light take 22% less pain medication per hour, improving comfort and reducing stress.
Another advantage of renewables is that they can provide power virtually anywhere, which means medical organizations could provide care in remote areas away from reliable electrical infrastructure. Renewables could also help transport sensitive medical supplies safely. Vaccines often require low storage temperatures, which can be challenging to maintain over a long journey. If more medical organizations adopted renewable energy, the industry would become more sustainable, affordable, accessible, and responsive.
There’s too much evidence to deny that humans are impacting the climate, which in turn is causing many problems right now and will continue to in the future unless things change. The good news is that we have solutions, but we need to capitalize on and implement them. By doing this, we’ll be ensuring that we all have a healthier future!