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Don’t build new renewable energy in California. Build it in the upper Midwest first

Where will renewables have the largest effect—both in terms of energy and in terms of emissions reductions? Not where we’re building them.

Don’t build new renewable energy in California. Build it in the upper Midwest first
[Images: yewkeo/iStock, StudioM1/iStock]

“Location, location, location” has long been the mantra of the real estate industry. A property’s location is considered more important than the qualities of the property itself. Perhaps unexpectedly, a similar rule applies to renewable energy infrastructure.

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A new study out of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard C-CHANGE), titled “Climate and Health Benefits of Increasing Renewable Energy Deployment in the United States,” has found that the locations where renewable energy sources are built in the U.S. matter as much as, if not more than, the type of renewable energy that’s built there.

“If you’re interested in maximizing health benefits and maximizing planet benefits, you should build [renewable energy] in the Great Lakes or in the upper Midwest,” says the study’s lead author, Harvard C-CHANGE research associate Jonathan Buonocore.

Though Buonocore calls location “more important” than the type of renewables installed, certain renewable energy forms are still better suited to particular areas. For instance, installing wind turbines in the upper Midwest will offer both the greatest cost and public health benefits compared to locations anywhere else in the country. As for solar panels, they’re best set in the Great Lakes/mid-Atlantic region. Overall, Harvard C-CHANGE reported that the potential climate and health benefits of deploying renewable energy are about four times higher for those living in the Midwest than for those living in California.

Breaking this down by cost, the Harvard study reported that while 1 megawatt hour of energy produced from wind in California is worth $28, that same amount of wind energy is worth $113 in the upper Midwest. To measure this, the study’s authors used the “social cost of carbon,” defined during the Obama Administration as a way to determine the “social benefits of reducing carbon dioxide emissions into cost-benefit analyses of regulatory actions.” Essentially, it gives the negative effects of climate change a dollar value.

Buonocore and team tried to consider “all the future impacts of climate change” in determining how much money each U.S. region would save by cutting carbon emissions. They looked at agricultural disruption, displacement (like people having to move due to rising sea levels), and even the spread of infectious diseases.

The research team also looked at the health benefits that would result from building more renewable energy solutions and therefore improving air quality. Using a few different air pollution models, the researchers, as Buonocore puts it, “looked at the value of basically reducing the risk of death.” This meant considering how lower air pollution would contribute to the reduction in cases of respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, and strokes.

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“There is also some emerging evidence that air pollution leads to different neurocognitive diseases, including Alzheimer’s and autism—even low birth weight,” Buonocore says.

The study broke the U.S. up into 10 different sections—California, the Northwest, the Southwest, Rocky Mountains, Texas, lower Midwest, upper Midwest, Southeast, Great Lakes and mid-Atlantic, and Northeast. Key to determining which areas would make the most effective homes to new renewable energy were two aspects—what types of nonrenewable energy the renewable versions would replace, and how many people live downwind of high polluting areas. In the Great Lakes and mid-Atlantic region, for example, renewable energy would replace mostly coal, which is a high emitter of carbon dioxide and multiple other air pollutants. Lots of people live downwind of the area’s polluting energy plants.

In California, however, there are already a lot of sustainable energy sources. Plus, the nonrenewable energy getting displaced would primarily be gas, which doesn’t put out as many harmful pollutants as coal. This is partly what contributes to making the Great Lakes region a more cost-beneficial home to new renewable energy.

Ultimately, Buonocore says that installing renewable energy in two-thirds of the country “is more cost-effective than putting carbon capture on a coal-fired power plant.” Particularly in the Great Lakes and the upper Midwest, he adds, “the health benefits are so large that it ends up more than making up for the financial cost of building the wind and solar [power installations].”

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About the author

Jessica Klein is a freelance journalist whose stories about everything from cryptocurrency to Renaissance Faire kink have appeared in The Atlantic, Fortune, BBC, Vice, and The Outline. She is the coauthor of Abetting Batterers: What Police, Prosecutors, and Courts Aren’t Doing to Protect America’s Women, which chronicles the criminal justice response to intimate partner violence in the U.S.

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