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The number of lives that clean energy could save, by U.S. state

Posted on 19 July 2021 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections by Karin Kirk

The United States can achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 while creating half a million new jobs, modernizing the energy infrastructure, and avoiding hundreds of thousands of needless deaths, according to the comprehensive Net Zero America study by researchers at Princeton University.  The study concluded that the price tag for a major energy transition would be no more than the current system costs.

But the results of the Net Zero study are even better than they appear at first glance, because the transition to renewable energy can partly pay for itself, simply because replacing fossil fuels would mean fewer people die from air pollution.

Though the primary motivator in adopting clean energy is to reduce climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions, cleaner air is an enormous co-benefit. Phasing out coal, natural gas, and internal combustion engines has immediate, local, and concrete effects on air quality and human lives.

A recent study found that air pollution from fossil fuels kills 8 million people per year, worldwide. In the U.S. alone, a 2019 study estimated that fossil fuel use causes over 50,000 deaths and $445 billion in economic damage annually. (See also: Burning fossil fuels heats the climate. It also harms public health)

The economic and health burdens of air pollution are borne by individuals, families, and society, not by energy companies. The damage is socially and racially unjust, levying the heaviest toll on those least responsible for causing the problem. The fossil fuel industry’s ability to freely pollute and cause widespread degradation to public health is an example of a generous subsidy, because society bears the costs for oil, gas, and coal’s business model.

Fewer respirators, more solar panels

The Net Zero America report explores how decarbonizing the energy supply would affect jobs, public health, agriculture, and scores of other factors. The report was originally published in December 2020, and an updated, refined version of the study is soon to be released.

Erin Mayfield, a co-author of the study and an associate research scholar at Princeton who studies societal impacts of environmental policy, shared some of the new datasets with YCC. The numbers point to huge benefits of switching to clean energy, in terms of a dramatic reduction in air pollution.

The study produced several forecasts on improvements in air quality, showing effects of eliminating specific fuels in each of the 48 contiguous states every year from now until 2050. It’s a staggering amount of data, with a lot of good news in the results.

The Net Zero project modeled five possible pathways to decarbonize the energy supply. The scenario labeled E+ is sort of the middle-ground, and it’s the basis for the comparisons that follow.  E+ would phase out most coal by 2030, add massive amounts of renewable energy to the grid, and electrify transportation.

These improvements would save around 400,000 American lives by 2050, the study concludes. Breaking down these results by source reveals the deadliest types of pollution. Eliminating coal-burning is projected to save more than 100,000 lives between now and 2050, and switching road transportation from internal combustion to electric would result in around 98,000 avoided deaths. Phasing out natural gas saves more than 42,000 lives, and another 30,000 early deaths can be averted from winding down fossil fuel production.

Early deaths avoided

The map below illustrates how these public health gains would be distributed across the country.

California suffers far and away the worst from air pollution and therefore has the most to gain from cleaning up its energy supply. The Net Zero study shows that over 68,000 premature deaths can be averted in California by 2050, largely from electrifying transportation.

As Pennsylvania and Ohio are major coal-consuming economies, a shift away from coal would save more than 10,000 lives in each state, according to the study. Texas can make large improvements by reducing deaths associated with fossil fuel production, including not only among workers in those industries but also those living nearby.

‘Air pollution is regressive’

The effects of air pollution are tilted severely toward lower-income people and Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities who disproportionately live in congested urban areas and near sources of industrial pollution like oil refineries. “Across many emissions categories, air pollution is regressive,” Mayfield explains. “There’s higher mortality among lower income populations, and lower mortality for higher income groups. That’s true for natural gas, coal, and many emissions sources,” she says.

Replacing fossil fuels with cleaner energy is one means of easing the burden of pollution on marginalized population groups, because those who cause the most pollution aren’t the ones stuck breathing it.

Mayfield expresses gratitude that environmental justice seems at last to be getting more traction with the public and among some in the policy community. She’s worked for years to pin hard numbers on the unequal effects of pollution, and recently she has seen an increasing interest for social equity in energy planning and modeling.

With the combination of specific data and a rising consciousness for social justice, “Now you can potentially drive changes,” Mayfield says. “I’m glad other people understand; I’m glad it’s on the agenda.”

Cleaner air saves trillions of dollars

Premature deaths, missed days of work and school, and health care costs put a very real price tag on the societal burden of air pollution. Mayfield and her colleagues calculated monetary damages for premature deaths, using EPA’s value of a statistical life. The concept of converting human lives to dollar amounts is based on the amount of money people would pay in order to avoid an increased chance of dying from pollution. It’s not a literal number, though it is based on plenty of data about risk avoidance.

The financial tally is impressive: Cleaner energy and cleaner air could avert $3.5 trillion in avoided damages over the next 30 years.

The map of economic impacts mirrors that of health impacts – hover over each state to see its benefits from reducing different sources of pollution.

Money saved by cutting polluting could partly offset the price of clean energy infrastructure

In concept, there are trillions of dollars to be saved by polluting less. The price tag is based on the value society places on avoiding death caused by air pollution. Mayfield explains that it’s not money that actually changes hands in the economy. Rather, it’s a way to put a dollar figure on a given amount of risk.

The financial benefits of cleaner air can be used to help offset the costs of replacing polluting energy sources with cleaner ones. Given the societal cost of air pollution, how far could that same amount of money go toward paying for cleaner energy infrastructure? For example, how many wind turbines could be purchased?

Using the air pollution data from the Net Zero study, along with energy prices from a variety of sources (outlined below), it’s possible to come up with some estimates.

Here are some examples:

  • In Illinois, ceasing to burn coal could save $52 billion in health damages, which could pay for the purchase and installation of more than 18,000 2-megawatt wind turbines.
  • Oklahoma’s $11 billion of health impacts from transportation could pay for 200,000 fast EV charging stations.
  • In Florida, money saved on reducing air pollution would fund construction of around 29,000 5-megawatt solar farms.
  • Nationwide, the economic damage from fossil fuel air pollution could pay for 1.2 million wind turbines.

The map below shows how many wind turbines, solar farms, or EV chargers could be paid for, using only the savings from ramping down fossil fuel pollution.

Paying for fossil fuel replacement by improved public health

The math can be taken one step further, but the analysis becomes a conceptual exercise rather than a literal one. Suppose the financial benefits of avoiding pollution were spent on wind turbines. Adding together the energy output from those wind turbines, how far would that go in reducing fossil fuel use? In other words, how much fossil fuel generation can be replaced, using only the money saved as a result of reducing air pollution?

On a national scale, the answer is 28%. So a little more than a quarter of fossil-fuel energy could be swapped out for wind energy using only the savings from cleaner air, without any other economic inputs.

The results vary geographically, with the best tradeoffs in the most polluted places.

  • For instance in California, using only the money saved from lowering air pollution, the state could hypothetically build enough wind turbines to replace 69% of its fossil fuel use.
  • New York State could replace 82% of its fossil fuels with savings from improving public health.
  • The District of Columbia could come out ahead, because its costs of air pollution impacts are more than the price of switching all its fossil fuel use to wind or solar energy.
  • In places with less air pollution and more fossil fuels, like Wyoming, the gain from air quality only pays to offset 2% of the state’s fossil fuel use. Still, Wyoming can generate substantial income by selling wind energy to out-of-state buyers eager to move away from fossil fuels.

There are caveats to these numbers. First, the actual cost of wind and solar installations vary around the country, although that price is falling everywhere and is expected to continue to do so. Also, the estimates don’t account for the price of transmission lines or energy storage. Of course, the costs of the status quo are also on the low side because this analysis does not factor in damages from climate change, habitat loss, oil spills, coal ash, methane leaks, and so on.

The bottom line is that transitioning away from polluting fuels will pay for itself, in part, just from the savings brought by cleaner air. And at the same time, Americans will benefit from better health. In an era where compromise appears to be a lost art, this is a clear win-win.

Data sources:

Net Zero America state fact sheets contain detailed, state-level data. 

The cost of building onshore wind turbines in 2018 was $1,382 per KW (EIA); a 2 MW wind turbine would be $2.76 million; a 30% capacity factor was used to estimate the actual amount of energy generated.

Cost of utility-scale solar farms is around $1 per watt (NREL).

Cost of a Level 3, fast DC electric vehicle charging station is around $50,000.

Energy Information Administration data tracks state-by-state fossil fuel use; most recent data is from 2018. These amounts are likely lower now.

No tax credits, rebates, or subsidies are included in these figures.

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Comments 1 to 1:

  1. Data graphs... Interesting... Fact sheets, do tell. Article by who? Really. Source links to a group that links it's source information back to itself.


    C02 is not a poison until it reaches highly concentrated levels. Rarely happens.


    .04% of our atmosphere is c02. .0016% of that .04% is manmade. Multiply the two figures together to get the % of the atmosphere which is manmade c02. That's .000064. If you added .000064% pink panther fiberglass to your outhouse your butt would still be cold in the winter.


    Studies reveal!!! What studies? Oh, Yale. University. Must be smart kids there these days. Reading books. Looking at thermometers.


    Been researching C02 detectors myself lately. Basic description for the most detailed I shall provide now.

    Too housing contains filter mechanism. Bounces Electrons (little buggers) back and forth between electrode plates. Electrolytes (salt water? Potassium? Gatorade?) change c02 to o2 through oxidation (rust) and reduces (evaporates)... get ready far this... oxygen into water. O into H2O. Yup... water into wine as well I suppose. The electrodes are biochemically sensitive to these changes. 

    I'll have to look this convuluted one up again for further details. It didn't mention any silicone chips nor as usually typical the almighty laser.

    Fancy thermometer at best. Get yours free shipping from Walmart for like $30. 

    You can't even find anyone who wants to admit being the inventor of these snake oil charms nor will you find any original patents. Yet hundreds of mostly fly by night companies sell them for prices up into the thousands.

    Shows parts per million.

    NASA has these million dollar detectors that shoot lasers from far above to hit the earth surface and I suppose eventually be picked up by some big Gatorade coated hunk of metal which detects out of each of the million parts that exist in the atmosphere... 400 are C02. Further calculations determine that we cased half of this. 

    Here is an interesting argument. It has been millions of years since the global temperature and C02 levels have been this high and man wasn't even around back then which proves man is the current cause!!! Most unintelligent argument to date. Who caused the high rates back then if we were not around? Wooly mammoth? Hairy hippos? It's like saying your daughter's boyfriend must not have worn a condom the last time they had sex because your great grandmother was pregnant at one time.

    Please think before you make pointless arguments.

    We humans if all in one spot on a globe shoulder to shoulder would not even be much of a pin point. Combine all of our biggest cities into one megalopolis... a small freckle on the on the face of ma Gaia. 

    Mother earth has made home for countless creatures... if we were to just add the ones we have yet to discover to the internet... google would overheat and break down from an overload. And yet we still search for even one or to life forms elsewhere.

    Mother earth has survived subzero trips to the shore and hot lava baths. She is covered in worm poo and skunk diddle. 

    And you worry she will die from second hand smoke which has been circulating since the dawn of her birth.

    Your numbers are baseless. Your charts disconnected. Your facts biased. Your proofs conjectured. Your projections assumed. Your own researched will lead you down rabbit holes that will have you as well ask questions to determine validity. Give it time and you find... fancy thermometers. People pointing lasers at silicone chips. Digital readings. 

    There are no valid reputable respectable people in the realm of all of our highest minds who can validate and properly explain the how function of your fancy thermometers. They just assume like you did that the producers knew what they were doing by way of high intelligence and education and not one in the line of them would ever attempt to decide or hoodwink. Nobody dares to question fancy thermometer for fear they will look unintelligent themselves. 

    And you can take my statements directly to any of our scientists. Then bring those kids to me. I would like to see their heads sink in sullen shame as we review all of the information available in the world about fancy thermometer... and here them admit to it's nonsense.

    Nice charts. Splendid graphs. 

    Pretty fancy thermometers.

    Now prove to me that our c02 without one shred of any doubt 100% caused the average number of tsunamis per year to go from 2 to 3. 

    Show me just one autopsy report stating cause of death was... air pollution.

    Show me the beaches where brilliant scientists are dutifully lined up measuring constant instant by instant changing ocean depths and receding shorelines.

    Show me that the number of facilities which extract atmospheric data from the air are evenly distributed across the world and not primarily clumped into rural areas. The ratio difference of such facilities between rural and non grows every year in favor of the rural. That in itself makes for apparant temperature anomalies.

    Show me where climate summits, committees, activist gatherings and fancy thermometer operators ever saved or even improved the life of even one person. Common sense of a child would tell you if they spent one tenth of the time exploring ways to prepare ourselves for natural disasters that are unavoidable regardless of our activities (you do know such things exist?) they would save many lives. Just one tenth of your focus shifted toward a more fruitful activiy... it is not much to ask.

    Show me empirical evidence and precision studies prove that a two degree raise in global temp makes an unstable earth when global temperates rise and fall many multiples of degrees higher and lower within seasons (Siberia holds 100° record differential), months, weeks, days, hours... any increment of time. Regionally two degree shifts happen within seconds... why can you not make a connection to calamity in these instances? Why do you refuse to admit 2° shifts over a century might be a small % normal. bet if I told the right activist that scientists predict an unpredicted ten degree shift in average global temperature within the hour... those activist would fall in panic, run out the back door with their fancy thermometers pass out from the frantic exhaustion of getting their ownselves heated over a common occurrence.

    Show me the credentials of each and every root source of every last statistic you have blind faith in. I would like to know if fancy thermometer makers might not be pushing a few numbers. Bet your bank account some are. 

    Show me how C02 is killing anything currently. Start looking for actual single file individual case examples in the anals of all our history of even one person who passed out from too much carbon dioxide... I'll give you the rest of your life to produce such papers... good luck. Before you can do that I will prove c02 allows for more life to flourish.

    Show me a year that has not had both record high and low temperatures. Of course we must remember readings are not evenly dispersed yet and the lasers attached to satellites are yet to be a cover all.

    Show me again the ice age many of the scientists from the 70's were warning us about... where is it? Guess that concept was beginning to sell less copies so they had to change the format or big guv who has an interest in people who have a concern the main public is following will stop funding them... seriously I want you to reread that last statement a few times... let it sink in. Think about the implications and how very real they might we'll be.

    Show me causation, not correlation. The person did not get a sun tan on a hot day because a coconut dropped on their head that day.

    And really a bunch of the information I may come up with is questionable as well. Who knows what's right? They give us estimates, rounded figures, apple orange comparisons. Coming up with pictures of prehistoric creatures bases on fragments of a single jawbone... then tell us approximately how millions of years since jawbone beast roamed earth... somewhere within this multimillion year range... and the temperature at that time was... and their favorite food was... and they squatted when they pooed fluffy spinich like clumps. Really. They know these facts due to the data represented by their Walmart C02 detectors.

    Suckers are not born every minute. They develop through passages of time by way of emotional stimulations. They are targeted. Their opinions are advocated, supported and fed so to break down their defenses. Once trust is gained... (after all, fancy thermometer man has my same concerns therefore his concerns are for me personally as well)... they strike.

    And you buy... in full... pun intended (aren't most all?).

    And I buy as well... in part.

    I wish not to find you reGret the weather... the Thunder... the iceBerg. Us grown ups are patiently waiting for your heroes... your people of the year... fan favorites... to grow up yourselves and drop the hatred and blame. Please stop pointing to the minute spinach stains on the teeth of others when immense festering cavities are being ignored.

    8% of human c02 production counted is through breathing. So you can't get us to net zero anyway unless you well... kill us. A % of our CO2 production which makes up part of the statistical reports you adhere to... are from farm animals... eating, pooing, breathing... existing. Us meat eaters are trying to be rid of them as well for your satisfaction but only so much can fit on the plate. 

    Getting to NetZero is impossible. Waste of time anyway.

    Proving that the .00005% is the only factor in 2° rise in the last century is harder than proving the chickens furting in a tornado caused more property damage. 

    Please be useful.

    Activism is well intentioned griping. Would you like reward for it? I don't ever think I found any activist of any cause who enriched our environment beyond a sprinkling... especially the griping or as as I like to call the negative activist. Even the great MLK who was a positive activist is predominantly known by his most endearing followers by just four words... "I had a dream" sad how the majority of the world only knows this much of the man. The four words can be attributed to anything. Further research will educate a follower his dream was basically that some day all races will get along... not to insult but many have said same message with less recognition. It was a world wide sprinkling recognized best because of his ability to sell the product of his speech with the decor of his character. Charisma was the salesman. Same for the young swedish girl with face twisting sputtering gripe furiously. If said in a calm sensible tone she would have been ignored. So I see the point of bringing out the personality to sell the product. A 90 yo business owner/salesman friend told me to be successful you must sell the sizzle not the steak...

    I will not abide to that when it comes to you and this subject you invested in. Instead I simply ask you...

    where's the beef?




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    Moderator Response:

    [RH] Excessive off-topic Gish Gallop.

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