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Monday, February 24, 2014

Location, location, location

Where are the best places in the US to install solar energy?  Sunny California?  Arid Arizona?  How about wind power?  The wind-swept Great Plains from North Dakota to Texas?

Not necessarily.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on July 16, 2013, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University concluded that the biggest bang for the energy buck should be measured by not only energy generation but also where the most people would benefit from the most reductions in air pollution, public health impacts, and environmental degradation. That, they found, depends on what the renewable energy is displacing. Think coal. Think Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

When wind or solar energy displace (sic) conventional generation, the reduction in emissions varies dramatically across the United States. Although the Southwest has the greatest solar resource, a solar panel in New Jersey displaces significantly more sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter than a panel in Arizona, resulting in 15 times more health and environmental benefits. A wind turbine in West Virginia displaces twice as much carbon dioxide as the same turbine in California. Depending on location, we estimate that the combined health, environmental, and climate benefits from wind or solar range from $10/MWh to $100/MWh, and the sites with the highest energy output do not yield the greatest social benefits in many cases. We estimate that the social benefits from existing wind farms are roughly 60% higher than the cost of the Production Tax Credit, an important federal subsidy for wind energy. However, that same investment could achieve greater health, environmental, and climate benefits if it were differentiated by region.
put a price tag on the social benefits of emission reductions and found, for example, that a wind turbine in West Virginia would avoid $230 in health and environmental damages per kilowatt-hour per year, displacing twice as much carbon dioxide and seven times as much health damage as the same turbine in California. Solar and wind energy sources emit less carbon dioxide and air pollution than burning fossil fuels for electricity.
The researchers suggested that Congress take regional variations into account when structuring tax benefits for clean energy. They argued that the incentives should be available at least until costs are competitive with conventional energy generation. 
For solar power, that day is fast approaching.

Pennsylvania passed its alternative energy portfolio law almost ten years ago.  (I led the legislative work on that bill for PennFuture, where I worked at the time).  It was last updated five years ago. When it was passed, the law was one of the strongest of its kind in the nation.  Not so any more. It’s past time to update it and make the renewable energy targets much more aggressive, taking advantage of Pennsylvania's preeminence in natural gas production.  Coupled with targeted Federal tax policy, smart state actions would drive more renewable energy deployment and “achieve greater health, environmental, and climate benefits.”


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