Quantifying Solar's Health Benefits

Solar power is appealing for many reasons; it creates jobs, helps localities and states to develop economically, and lowers the cost of power over time. However, its greatest benefit is that it renders fossil fuel generated electricity unnecessary. Burning fossil fuels for power has a deadly cost, so solar power does and will save lives—but how can we quantify this benefit?

A 2016 study, as part of the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Sunshot Initiative, took aim at this question. The Sunshot Initiative's goal is to drive down the costs of installed solar power to 6 cents a kilowatt and, in turn, expand solar power use to comprise greater shares of the US electricity supply: 14 percent by 2030 and 27 percent by 2050.

Even though the Sunshot Initiative has only recently begun, the benefits are already beginning to be noted. Some of the effects we are already experiencing from installed, operational solar power are described in the chart below:

Image Credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory/DOE

That's a reduction of 17 million metric tons of CO2 a year, an annual global benefit of $700 million, reductions of “10,000, 10,300, and 1,200 metric tons of SO2, NOx, and PM2.5, respectively ... which provide annual domestic air quality benefits of $890 million" a year, and water withdrawal and consumption savings of 294 billion gallons and 7.6 billion gallons, respectively, per year. Domestic air quality benefits include everything from fewer sick days from work to fewer childhood asthma attacks and fewer deaths from circulatory and respiratory ailments.If we actually achieve these Sunshot goals, the benefits will be massive.

Image Credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory/DOE

From 2015 to 2050, that's a cumulative savings of 10 percent of emissions from the power sector, which adds up to about $259 billion in global climate benefit. Add to that a cumulative $167 billion in reduced fine particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions, and it will lead to significant avoided environmental and health damages. All-in-all, that's a 46 trillion gallon reduction in water withdrawals and a 5 trillion gallon reduction in water consumption from the power sector. The total pollution and climate benefits will add up to at least $400 billion over that 35-year span, based on the 2016 dollar value.

The Total Solar Package

These massive health and environmental benefits are, frankly, highly significant on their own. However, these are only a piece of solar power's glowing report card. The world doubled its solar capacity in 2016, largely due to falling costs. More Americans now work in the solar industry than for Apple, Facebook, and Google combined. Elon Musk and Tesla are taking the Supercharger network off the grid and going almost completely solar. There is no question that solar will soon be cheaper than coal, no matter where you reside.

How the Sunshot Initiative will fare in the coming years is unclear. In both versions of the White House's budget for 2018, the DOE was subject to significant cuts, with the harshest cutbacks focused on clean energy programs like Sunshot, even though spending on these programs comprised only about 20 percent of the DOE's budget. One thing is certain: lack of investment into clean energy research will have devastating consequences for our future environment, health, economy, and more.

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