For decades, major decision-makers such as government officials, energy companies and business leaders have struggled on deciding how, when and if to install renewable energy. Regardless, the tide of energy usage has been quickly shifting from coal and oil to natural gas and renewables. Wind and solar have significantly increased in popularity within the last decade, and individuals are installing solar energy all across the country.
For large-scale applications, it’s still difficult to decide on what path to take. Fortunately, a new study by Harvard reveals where installing renewables will have the largest impact.
Findings by Region
The study by the Harvard Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment examined the U.S. by geographic area and divided the country into 10 distinct regions. Each area possesses trends in the type of energy production method used along with population density and environmental impact from non-renewable energy. The regions identified in the study include California, the Northwest, the Southwest, the Rocky Mountains, Texas, the Lower Midwest, the Upper Midwest, the Southeast, the Northeast, the Great Lakes and the Mid Atlantic.
The authors of the study utilized the social cost of carbon along with the benefits of climate change mitigation to calculate the impact of installing renewables. The economic value used to measure the benefit of reduction is calculated using the monetary cost of air pollution, water pollution, forest fires, agricultural disruption and severe weather from climate change. Based on the energy methods and environmental impacts already present in each location, this study determined the benefits of installing renewables for each major region. Results follow:
- The Midwest, Upper Midwest, Atlantic and Northeast all possess much higher positive benefits from renewables per megawatt-hour of electricity than California and the Southwest, Northwest and Rockies. Estimates ranged from $1.7 million for 100 MWh of installed wind in California to benefits greater than $2.2 trillion for 3,000 MWh from wind in the Upper Midwest.
- This study recommended installing fewer renewable energy sources in California and the Southwest since the energy source displaced in these two regions is mainly natural gas, which pollutes to a much smaller degree than coal and oil.
- The use of coal also results in the Upper Midwest, Atlantic and Midwest possessing benefits four times higher than California and the Southwest for installing renewables. Coal is far more destructive than any other energy source largely due to the particulate PM2.5, which is released by emissions and has devastating effects on human health.
- The Southeast, Northwest and Rocky Mountains also stand to gain a considerable amount from renewables due to the use of coal energy.
- Wind energy is used to calculate the benefits of renewables in most of the regions. The study also shows that the Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic stand to gain the most from solar energy.
- Overall, there is a discrepancy in benefits from the East compared to the West of the country. The East Coast is set to gain considerably more from renewable adoption due to a higher density of population centers in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and Southeast regions.
What This Data Means for You
Countless studies and cost-benefit analyses conducted for the adoption of renewable energy exist to guide decision-making. There’s also a considerable amount of analysis on what form of renewable energy is best for a given situation. This study greatly adds to the discussion by breaking down the impact per geographic region, allowing decision-makers to compare and contrast different areas. The most revealing takeaway from is the disparity in economic benefits from highly populated areas utilizing coal and less densely populated areas such as the Southwest and California.
For both individuals and large organizations, it’s incredibly important to analyze current energy production methods before deciding when and how to install renewable energy. For areas currently using coal, the benefit to society for switching to renewables is likely threefold that of areas using natural gas and other sources.
For every region, the monetary benefit for switching to renewables exceeds $1 million per 100 megawatt-hours or more. This analysis demonstrates just how grave the impacts of climate change are and will continue to be if we don’t start utilizing renewable energy to a large-scale degree.