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Study Show Replacing Coal with Solar Offers Double Benefits
June 21, 2017

As the debate continues to rage regarding coal’s detrimental impact on human health and the environment versus the economic benefit derived from its use in energy generation, a news report from Michigan Technological University (Michigan Tech) announces that researchers have calculated the cost of burning coal in terms of human lives along with the potential benefits of switching to solar.

Certain geographic regions are harder hit by coal-related deaths from air pollution, shown by calculating US deaths per kilowatt hour per year. Image courtesy of Emily Prehoda/Michigan Tech.

The study, published recently in Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews, shows that by transitioning to solar photovoltaics (PV), up to 51,999 American lives would be saved at $1.1 million invested per life.

“Unlike other public health investments, you get more than lives saved,” according to Joshua Pearce, a professor of materials science and electrical engineering at Michigan Tech. “In addition to saving lives, solar is producing electricity, which has economic value.”

Using a sensitivity analysis on the value of electricity, which examines the different costs of electricity that varies by region throughout the country, saving a life by using solar power also showed potential to make money—sometimes as much as several million dollars per life, noted Prof. Pearce. “Everybody wants to avoid wasting money. Just based off the pure value of electricity of the sensitivities we looked at, it’s profitable to save American lives by eliminating coal with solar,” he explained.

Prof. Pearce worked with energy policy doctoral student Emily Prehoda on the study, and their main goal was to better inform health policy. They gathered data from peer-reviewed journals and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to calculate deaths in the U.S. per kilowatt hour per year for both coal and solar. Then they used current costs of solar installations from the Department of Energy (DOE) and calculated the potential return on investment.

Based on their analysis, it would require 755 gigawatts, a substantial increase from the 22.7 gigawatts of solar currently installed, to fully replace all the coal production in the U.S. with solar PV, . The total cost of installing that much solar power totals $1.5 trillion, but that investment is figured into their calculations, and is a profitable investment.

“My overall take away from this study,” Prof. Pearce noted, “is that if we’re rational and we care about American lives—or even just money—then it’s time to end coal in the U.S. Solar has come down radically in cost, it’s technically viable, and coupled with natural gas plants, other renewables and storage, we have ways to produce all the electricity we need without coal, period.”

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