Replacing coal-fired power plants with solar power installations could save as many as 51,999 lives every year, a study from the Michigan Technological University has found. This is the number of people who will in all likelihood not die of things such as asthma and congestive heart failure resulting from harmful emissions from coal-fired plants.
Coal currently accounts for 30 percent of the U.S. energy mix, according to the Energy Information Administration. In terms of consumption, however, coal only accounted for 15 percent, almost all of it going into power generation. The fossil fuel is quickly losing share to natural gas, but is still a solid contributor to CO2 and other pollutants emissions – solid enough, according to the study’s authors, Emily Prehoda and Joshua Pierce, to kill more than 50,000 people on an annual basis.
Switching from fossil fuels to renewables is at the core of sustainability efforts. It also comes at a price, which Prehoda and Pierce have estimated at a total of US$1.45 trillion. This is the cost of installing 755 GW of new solar power generation capacity. Over a 25-year period—the length of the warranty on PV modules—this translates into US$1.1 million per life saved. It may not sound like a lot if it’s your life, but it is, the authors note, comparable to the value of a human life as estimated in other studies.
What’s more, solar power does not just come with costs. The US$1.1-million cost estimate is based on the premise that electricity has no value, which is not the case in reality. Both coal and solar are sources of revenues as well as electricity. So, the authors also calculated how much the switch will cost per life saved based on the residential retail power price of solar electricity in a rural area, namely Houghton, Michigan. The figure came in at a negative US$4.65 million per life saved. In other words, the authors argue, replacing coal with solar power under this scenario will actually save money, a lot more money than it will cost.
Could this study provide additional motivation for those driving the shift to renewable energy? It certainly could, even though such motivation may not actually be necessary: the U.S. coal industry is in a natural decline that will only accelerate in the coming years. One example of this is an analysis of the industry’s eventual demise and the reasons for it from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, which suggests that the U.S. coal industry is not a victim of policy changes and regulations. Instead, its demise is chalked up to a natural and logical consequence of progress and the changes in energy consumption it brings with it.
Besides natural gas, solar power is one of the drivers of this demise, and its role will become even more important in the next couple of decades, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The service has estimated that the share of coal in the U.S. energy mix will fall to 15 percent by 2040. While old coal-fired plants are closed, gas-powered generation capacity will expand by 22 percent and renewable capacity will jump by an impressive 169 percent.
Now, as Bloomberg notes, this goes against a forecast from the EIA, which sees coal’s share pretty stable, even rising slightly to 31 percent by 2040, based on the Trump administration’s plans to prop up the coal industry. Yet, the BNEF says, this does not reflect the “economic realities over the next two decades.” Or as Energy & Capital author Megan Dailey wrote, “Forget the Paris Agreement and all the drama surrounding it. The country’s renewable industry doesn’t need a global initiative to keep right on growing.” Indeed, the U.S. is the third biggest spender on renewable energy in the world, behind China and India. The more uneconomical coal becomes, thanks to cheap alternatives from the solar, wind and other renewables, the closer the U.S. will get to saving those 51,999 lives every year.