Last year, new research showed clean energy gains can go far beyond cuts in carbon. Now regulations are moving too.
Are fossil fuels vanishing over the horizon? Photo by Patrick Emerson/Flickr.
THE GOOD NEWS:
The rise of renewable energy in the U.S. has prevented thousands of premature deaths typically caused by poor air quality.
With clean energy policies facing a more uncertain future, here’s something that might tip the scale: better estimates about just what it’s saving us in economic terms.
This greater potential insight stems from a recent study that looks beyond measuring reductions in carbon emissions to get a broader picture of what’s being saved and how.
According to a number-crunching Berkeley team, it’s nothing to sneeze at. Over the past 10 years, the economic upshot of alternate energy use may have been as much as $110 billion in premature deaths averted.
Although hard to measure, especially nationwide, the impact of reduced pollution on premature death is likely to be significant, with the number of estimated annual deaths caused by air pollution clocking in higher than the number of fatalities caused by respiratory illness.
An additional conclusion weighs in clean energy’s favor. The net economic benefits, according to the Berkeley study, equal or outweigh the dollar amount of the state and federal subsidies provided to alternative energy initiatives and products over the years.
The subsidy issue has been a sticking point for investors, many of whom have viewed clean energy business plans as impossible to maintain in the absence of significant government support.
Although proof of a positive national return over time might not send Tesla’s history of reliance on federal funds — to use one prominent example — down the memory hole, it will probably bolster further the arguments made by forward-facing energy companies that time is on the side of their eventual profitability.
Even the Trump administration is making moves consistent with a shift away from subsidizing not-so-clean energy. In January 2018, despite a longtime promise from the White House to prop up the coal industry, federal regulators opted against directing funds to inefficient old plants.
That’s an indication that, politics aside, more and better analyses of the cumulative economic impact of cleaner energy projects can help policymakers better calibrate regulatory and legislative support amid competing interests.