By Jeff Deyette, Union of Concerned Scientists
An exciting study released today from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) finds that state-level renewable electricity standards (RES) are helping to substantially improve public health and the environment, create jobs, and protect consumers. This first-of-its-kind comprehensive national assessment confirms what clean energy advocates have argued for years: the benefits from investing in renewable energy far outweigh the costs.
The RES is a market-based policy that requires electricity providers to gradually increase the amount of wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources in their power supplies. Currently, 29 states and the District of Columbia have RES policies in place. And for nearly two decades, the RES has been a primary driver of new renewable energy development in the United States. Through 2014, state-level RESs have spurred more than 50 gigawatts (GW) of new renewable energy development, and they are projected to support an additional 67 GW through 2030.
This new analysis, conducted by researchers at DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, examines a suite of potential benefits and impacts from the new renewable energy sources developed to achieve state-level RES compliance in 2013. The results are calculated at the national level and they are impressive. In 2013 alone, new renewables driven by state RES policies:
- Generated $7.4 billion in public health and other societal benefits from the reduction of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx), and particulate matter. Power plant carbon emissions are the single largest contributor to U.S. global warming pollution, while SO2, NOx, and particulates are major contributors to acid rain, smog, asthma, and premature death from heart and lung disease.
- Supported nearly 200,000 domestic renewable energy jobs, with an average annual salary of $60,000.
- Saved consumers as much as $1.2 billion from lower wholesale electricity prices and up to $3.7 billion from reduced natural gas prices. Bringing more renewable energy on to the grid reduces the demand for (and helps lower the price of) natural gas and other power sources with higher operating costs.
- Reduced power plant water consumption by 27 billion gallons and water withdrawals by 830 billion gallons. In the U.S., more water is withdrawn by power plants than for any other use. As climate impacts worsen, it puts water supplies and water-dependent power plants at risk.
What’s most impressive about these RES benefits is that only represent a single year. Most benefits, especially those related avoided pollution, will continue to accrue—and even expand as RES targets increase—in future years.
Benefits far outweigh costs of RES compliance
DOE’s latest report follows an analysis completed by the same team in 2014 that focused on the costs of state-level RES compliance. That work found total RES compliance costs across all states to be about $1 billion per year between 2010 and 2013, which is generally equivalent to less than 2 percent of average statewide retail electricity rates.
This new analysis helps put these compliance costs into context, and clearly shows that the benefits far outweigh compliance costs. The health and societal benefits from avoided pollution alone provides a remarkable return on investment of more than 7 to 1!
Why is this new research so important?
DOE’s analysis comes at a critical time and offers significant value to decision makers in the effort to transition toward a low-carbon economy. Here are three of my key takeaways for how this report can contribute:
- With the EPA’s Clean Power Plan now finalized, states must develop compliance plans to achieve their carbon emissions reduction targets. RES policies can offer a powerful complementary policy measure for all states to use as part of a cost-effective compliance strategy.
- Many state RES policies have been under attack in recent years by fossil-fuel funded front groups using disinformation to try and undermine the value of renewable energy. Fortunately, nearly all of those attacks have failed. But this analysis provides further valuable evidence needed to rebut bogus claims and reject further attempts to weaken RES laws.
- The comprehensive nature of DOE’s analysis and the clear, uniform methods they use can serve as a blueprint for state RES administrators across the country to evaluate the benefits from their respective RES programs.
The message from this new analysis is clear: Accelerating the transition to greater use of renewable energy (and using the RES to do it) is a great way lower emissions, improve public health, create jobs, and save consumers money.