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Study shows wind and solar plant benefits vary by location

Posted June 26, 2013
A photograph of w:Nevada Solar One and Copper Mountain Solar 1. Credit: Michael Adams

A photograph of w:Nevada Solar One and Copper Mountain Solar 1. Credit: Michael Adams

A team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University has published a paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggesting that governments and utility companies rethink where renewable resource plants are built. They claim that building solar or wind farms in regions that currently rely heavily on burning coal to produce electricity provides far more societal benefits than building similar plants in parts of the country that currently use much cleaner gas-fired plants.

To come up with a way to measure the societal value of building solar or wind farms, the researchers attached a monetary value to the pollution currently created by power plants—$20 per ton for carbon dioxide emitted. They did the same with costs associated with people dying from air pollution emitted from power plants—arriving at $6 million per person. Using these numbers, they were able to calculate how much money a region would save if they replaced current electricity plants with wind or solar farms. In so doing, they found a wide range, from $10 per megawatt hour in Arizona to $100 in several northeastern states.

The overall point the researchers are trying to make is that it doesn’t always make the most sense to put a renewable resource farm in a region based solely on how efficiently it will perform there. Solar farms in the southeast part of the country, for example, produce far more electricity than do the same types of farms in northern areas—they get more sunshine. Similarly, wind farms vary in efficiency depending on where they are placed—but if a solar or wind farm displaces far more pollutants in the north than in the south, than more should be built there, despite their being far less efficient in those regions.

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