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Renewable Energy Benefits Vary By Location
December 28, 2020

A possibly overly enthusiastic attempt to embrace the movement to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy resources actually has resulted in critical investment funds being used to finance projects whose environmental benefit versus conventional power generation was questionable.

Now, based on information provided by North Carolina State University (NC State), a new study finds that the environmental benefits of renewable power generation vary significantly, depending on the nature of the conventional power generation that the renewable energy is offsetting. Finding were published recently in a paper, “Regional Disparities in Emissions Reduction and Net Trade from Renewables,” appearing in the journal Nature Sustainability.

“For years, researchers have taken different approaches to try to assess the environmental benefits of renewable energy,” remarked Harrison Fell, co-author of the study and an associate professor of energy economics at NC State. “The Energy Information Administration started releasing detailed data on renewable power generation in 2018, and we realized that we finally had an opportunity to address this issue using real-world data.

“Our study is the first to quantify emissions reductions from solar and wind generation relying on renewable generation data across a broad array of regions, while also accounting for electricity trade between regions,” Prof. Fell stated.

For the study, researchers drew on data from regions spanning the contiguous 48 states from July 2018 through March 2020.

Possibly the most important finding in the study is that the environmental value of renewable energy varies significantly. The impact of one megawatt hour (MWh) of renewable power varies depending on where that power was generated.

“For example, one MWh of solar power produced in Florida reduces carbon dioxide emissions by about twice as much as one MWh of solar power produced in California,” noted Jeremiah Johnson, corresponding author of the study and an associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering at NC State. “That’s because California already has a cleaner grid when compared to other regions. So offsetting an hour of conventional power generation in California reduces CO2 emissions less than offsetting an hour of conventional power generation in Florida.”

This information will now assist planners in determining where investment dollars will have the greatest impact.

“In the near term, these findings give us insight into where we should target investments in renewable power in order to maximize the environmental benefits,” Prof. Johnson said.

During the course of the study, the researchers also found that environmental benefits often crossed regional lines.

“Right now, renewable energy is largely driven by policies that vary from state to state,” Prof. Fell explained. “Our work here highlights one reason that this is not a very efficient approach to energy policy. A federal approach to renewable energy policy would be better able to account for the interstate nature of energy production, energy consumption and environmental benefits.”

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