The climate and air-quality benefits of wind and solar power in the United States

Abstract

Wind and solar energy reduce combustion-based electricity generation and provide air-quality and greenhouse gas emission benefits. These benefits vary dramatically by region and over time. From 2007 to 2015, solar and wind power deployment increased rapidly while regulatory changes and fossil fuel price changes led to steep cuts in overall power-sector emissions. Here we evaluate how wind and solar climate and air-quality benefits evolved during this time period. We find cumulative wind and solar air-quality benefits of 2015 US$29.7–112.8 billion mostly from 3,000 to 12,700 avoided premature mortalities, and cumulative climate benefits of 2015 US$5.3–106.8 billion. The ranges span results across a suite of air-quality and health impact models and social cost of carbon estimates. We find that binding cap-and-trade pollutant markets may reduce these cumulative benefits by up to 16%. In 2015, based on central estimates, combined marginal benefits equal 7.3 ¢ kWh−1 (wind) and 4.0 ¢ kWh−1 (solar).

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Figure 1: Total wind and solar capacity and generation in the continental US by month.
Figure 2: Regions within the AVERT model.
Figure 3: Marginal emissions benefits and proportion of generation offsetting natural gas.
Figure 4: Annual avoided air-quality and climate damage.
Figure 5: Annual benefits by region.

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Acknowledgements

This work was funded by the Wind Energy Technologies Office, Solar Energy Technologies Office, and Office of Strategic Programs Office, all within the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy of the US Department of Energy, under Contract No. DE-AC02-05CH11231. We would like to thank M. Goggin and H. Hunt at AWEA for providing information related to regional wind power transfers. We also thank J. Solomon-Culp for helping to develop the wind and solar generation time series.

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All authors jointly developed the research design. D.M. carried out all of the simulations and analysed the model outcomes. With input from all authors, D.M. led the overall manuscript development. R.W. provided critical input and review throughout the manuscript. M.B. and R.W. led development of the comparison with incentives and market prices. G.B., D.M. and R.W. developed the distributed solar generation estimates.

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Correspondence to Dev Millstein.

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Millstein, D., Wiser, R., Bolinger, M. et al. The climate and air-quality benefits of wind and solar power in the United States. Nat Energy 2, 17134 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nenergy.2017.134

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