Above Photo: Oxfam International/flickr
So about those coal jobs: Turns out replacing coal with solar could keep a lot more people alive.
Swapping out coal energy for solar would prevent 52,000 premature deaths in the United States every year, according to a new analysis from Michigan Technological University.
Amid all the talk from the Trump Administration that regulations targeting coal are hurting people, this shows “many more lives are saved by phasing out coal,” said Liz Perera, climate policy director for the Sierra Club, who was not involved in the study.
In addition the savings in health care costs added to the value of the solar electricity could in some cases bring in money, offsetting the costs of the switch.
“Evolving the U.S. energy system utilizing clean, alternative technology will allow the U.S. to prevent thousands of premature deaths along with becoming a global leader in renewable technology adoption,” the authors wrote in the study published in the journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews.
Michigan Tech University researchers analyzed peer-reviewed health studies and calculated lives lost per kilowatt hour to coal each year—finding approximately 51,999 people die due to coal pollutants that spur respiratory, heart and brain problems.
“Coal-fired pollution harms human life. It kills people,” said senior author Joshua Pearce, a researcher and professor at Michigan Tech University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “From an American perspective this transition [from coal to solar] makes complete sense.”
Pearce and Michigan Tech Ph.D student Emily Prehoda calculated it would take 755 gigawatts of solar energy at a cost of $1.45 trillion to replace all current coal power. That would be a significant bump up from the current 22.7 gigawatts of solar power in the U.S.
This averages about $1.1 million invested per life saved. That cost, however, doesn’t take into account solar’s value. When the energy pumped into the grid is combined with the health care savings, a switch to solar would actually end up saving money, Pearce said.
He estimates that using a net metering system that credits commercial solar energy system users would actually bring in $1.5 million for every life saved and a residential net metering would bring in more than $2 million per life saved.
Solar’s growth, and coal’s decline, is undeniable. A report from the International Renewable Energy Agency last week estimated that solar jobs were up 82 percent over the past three years.
There are now about 260,000 solar jobs in the U.S., compared to just 51,000 in coal mining.
But solar only accounts for about 1.5 percent of the nation’s electricity. Pearce said that’s due to two things: inertia and policy. Citing a local example he said he and other professors were helping people near their university get solar power at their homes and the biggest obstacle is the local regulations on how much solar can be put into the grid.
“It’s rules like this that are stopping people from doing it individually,” he said. “I have Republican friends who installed solar—not to save the whales or anything, but to save money.”
And on the national level President Trump has been all-in on coal use.
Trump signed an executive order earlier this year to rescind the Clean Power Plan—currently on hold as it is litigated—which requires power plants to cut carbon emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
And just last week Trump announced that he would pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, saying the accord would “decapitate” the U.S. coal industry.
He gave a nod to coal country saying he was putting Pittsburgh before Paris. (Pittsburgh has committed to powering itself by 100 percent renewable energy by 2035.)
But researchers say Trump and other pro-coal supporters are fighting an uphill battle.
“Trump can’t stop the will of the market and the will of the people to choose clean energy,” Perera said.