Reconstructing the Public Health Burden of Energy During the Last Decade in the U.S. – 3 Key Takeaways for Energy and Climate Policymaking
The Harvard Healthy Buildings program collaborated with the Harvard Chan Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE) on a study on the health impacts of energy transitions from coal-fired power plants to other energy sources during the last decade. Here we provide 3 key takeaways from our study.
- There was a massive reduction in health impacts due to retirement of coal-power plants
The results of this study show that the public health burden of air pollution from energy consumption in the stationary sectors – commercial buildings, residential buildings, industry, and electricity – has changed substantially during the last decade in the U.S. The mortality impacts of PM2.5 dropped from 122,621-143,089 premature deaths ($1,373 billion 2017USD – $1,603 billion 2017USD) in 2008 to 48,457-64,038 premature deaths ($543 billion 2017USD – $717 billion 2017USD) in 2017. This reduction in health impacts occurred mainly due to retirement of coal-power plants in electricity sector.
Figure 1. Historical and projected mortality impacts of PM2.5-related emissions from coal, gas, and wood and biomass consumption, in the energy consuming sectors – residential buildings, commercial buildings, industry, and electricity – from 2008 to 2018, in the U.S.
- Natural gas and biomass now have higher health impacts than coal in many states.
Results show that in 2008, health impacts of energy use in stationary sectors (were dominated by coal combustion in the electricity sector. From 2008 to 2017, the health impacts of coal in the electricity sector dropped significantly due to the retirement of coal power plants in the electricity sector and the transition to other fuel sources such as natural gas and biomass and wood. During this transition period, the health impacts of gas and biomass and wood started to surpass coal in various states and with time, the number of states in which natural gas or biomass and wood were the leading sources of health impacts increased. By 2017, the health impacts of natural gas surpassed coal in 19 states and the District of Columbia. Nationwide, in 2017, biomass and wood were the leading source of health impacts from fuel combustion in stationary sectors. The projection results show that these trends are likely to continue.
“Our findings show that while there are public health benefits from reducing coal emissions, gas, biomass, and wood are not clean or healthy alternative energy sources. Swapping one polluting fuel source for another is not a pathway to a healthy energy system,” says lead author Dr. Jonathan Buonocore, a Research Scientist at the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard Chan School. “Wind, solar, and other non-fuel combusting renewable energy are the healthiest energy sources available for generating electricity, powering our factories, and heating our homes.”
Figure 2. The combusted fuel with the highest public health burden from PM2.5 in 2017, by state, as indicated by each RCM.
- The share of health impacts of energy use in the U.S. from buildings has increased during the last decade.
As of 2017, the health impacts of energy use are neither dominated by the electricity sector nor by coal anymore; health impacts are shared among sectors and fuel types. Industrial boilers and buildings have higher health impacts than electricity. This highlights the significance of distributed emission sources, especially buildings. Health impacts in residential buildings are dominated by wood combustion in all states except for two states of New York and Illinois. In commercial buildings, gas and wood and biomass are the leading source of health impacts in different states. Noting that the health impacts from the building sector presented in this study are underestimated since the health impacts of indoor exposure to emissions from fuel combustion in buildings are not included. Furthermore, a significant portion of the health impacts in the electricity sector is due to demand from buildings. Therefore, there are substantial benefits to policies that reduce emissions from buildings, including state and local policies focusing on energy efficiency and sustainability in the building sector.
“Our health and energy policy are inextricably linked. Burning gas and biomass have significant health impacts and should be replaced with clean renewable energy sources. Yet, climate policies have focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and not the air pollutant emissions that cause adverse health impacts, which has led to the rise of gas and biomass combustion as coal is replaced,” says study author Dr. Parichehr Salimifard, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Harvard Healthy Buildings program. “Energy infrastructure built today could operate for decades—locking in their health impacts along with greenhouse gas emissions. Policymakers must consider health when making energy decisions.”
Figure 3. The combusted fuel with the highest public health burden from PM2.5 for each major sector in 2017, by state, as indicated by each RCM.
“A decade of the U.S. energy mix transitioning away from coal: historical reconstruction of the reductions in the public health burden of energy,” Jonathan J. Buonocore, Parichehr Salimifard, Drew R. Michanowicz, Joseph G. Allen, Environmental Research Letters, May 5, 2021. DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/abe74c