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How renewable energy can boost Rust Belt health outcomes

A cluster of solar panels
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A new peer-reviewed study finds substantial health benefits in Rust Belt states when utilities are required to supply escalating amounts of renewable power. The researchers modeled existing mandates and what happens if they're made more stringent.

Why it matters: The paper in Environmental Research Letters explores the regional effects of energy policies that reduce fine particulates — which cause cardiovascular ailments — in the air by displacing coal-fired power.

  • It arrives amid a focus on state-level policy at a time when the Trump administration is rolling back Obama-era federal initiatives.
  • It also comes just weeks after Ohio's GOP Gov. Mike DeWine signed legislation that weakens the state's renewables requirements.

What they did: MIT researchers compared costs and benefits of state policies called renewable portfolio standards (RPS) in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and other states — and the effects of making them tougher.

  • They modeled maintaining renewables policies in the 10-state Rust Belt region, which creates an average renewables requirement of 13% of generation in 2030.
  • They then modeled two other scenarios; one would boost that overall share to 20% and another would double it to 26%.

What they found: Maintaining the requirements would bring health benefits of $4.7 billion in 2030 compared to costs of $3.5 billion in their central scenario.

  • Strengthening mandates to 20% provides estimated health benefits of $13.5 billion against $5.8 billion in costs.
  • Doubling the average required renewables share of the power mix to 26% brings health benefits of $20 billion against $9 billion in costs.

The intrigue: The study also provides new comparisons to carbon pricing.

  • Even very low CO2 prices would provide greater health gains than the RPS requirements by prompting aggressive displacement of coal with gas.
  • On the climate side, avoided CO2 emissions in 2030 are the same as doubling the average RPS requirement.

What they're saying: Leah Stokes of the University of California, Santa Barbara called the linkage of economic modeling with atmospheric chemistry an important contribution: "That allows for a much richer understanding of how energy decisions affect public health."

  • She noted that the paper models increases in renewables requirements in a region where the existing mandates are not aggressive.
  • "The targets that they are shooting for in this paper are not overly ambitious," she told Axios.
  • "They are showing that even doing these piecemeal things would be an improvement for the Rust Belt."

But, but, but: That comparison to CO2 pricing has big caveats. Among them...

  • Looking further ahead, the paper notes that increased gas reliance is not a pathway for deeply decarbonizing electricity.
  • Climate and health estimates from CO2 pricing don't weigh the "full environmental externalities" of gas extraction.
  • Renewables mandates, now in place in 29 states, have proven more politically viable than CO2 pricing.

Go deeper: Everything's deadlier in the South