• 01.14.16

Requiring Utilities To Use Renewables Saves Billions Of Dollars

The Energy Department corrects the idea that shifting to renewables costs money.

Requiring Utilities To Use Renewables Saves Billions Of Dollars
The environmental benefits of renewables outweigh their costs to utilities.

Twenty-nine U.S. states plus Washington, D.C. require utilities to produce a certain amount of electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind. And these rules are not without controversy. Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) force companies to do something they might not normally do and they’ve been fiercely attacked by Republicans from Kansas to Colorado.


But they do seem to be saving money and helping the environment, according to a new analysis.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) studied the collective effect of state RPSs in 2013. They found the obligations brought $2.2 billion in benefits from reduced greenhouse gas emissions and $5.2 billion from other types of pollution. In addition, switching away from fossil fuels to renewables reduced water use by as much as 830 billion gallons.

The $2.2 billion in greenhouse gas benefits is based on 59 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent not reaching the atmosphere and a “social cost” of carbon of $37 per ton. That latter sum accounts for the mitigated cost of sea levels that don’t rise and crops that are not spoiled by climate-induced extreme weather (some researchers think $37 per ton is too low).

The Berkeley Lab/NREL study also says RPS-related projects supported 200,000 U.S. jobs in 2013 and 2014, generating $20 billion in economic activity. About 170,000 jobs came from construction, with the most coming in the solar industry; the rest were in ongoing operations and maintenance.

“The analysis can help inform decision makers of the value of state RPS programs and the scale of various potential benefits and impacts,” the study says.

Indeed, it’s a corrective to the idea that shifting to renewables costs money. The analysis shows that, when you account for environmental impacts in dollars and cents, the numbers begin to add up.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.