Akshat Rathi* focusses on the debate ‘raging across the world’ about subsidies to the renewable industry. Though the results of a new analysis in Nature Energy are directly applicable to the US, he points out that many rich countries have similar factors at play and are likely to produce similar cost-benefit analyses.
The study, by Dev Millstein of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and his colleagues, finds that the fossil fuels not burnt because of wind and solar energy helped to avoid between 3,000 and 12,700 premature deaths in the US between 2007 and 2015.
They found that the US saved between $35 billion and $220 billion in that period because of avoided deaths, fewer sick days, and climate-change mitigation.
“The monetary value of air quality and climate benefits are about equal or more than state and federal financial support to wind and solar industries,” says Millstein.
Rathi continues: “Creation of a new industry spurs economic growth, creates new jobs, and leads to technology development. There isn’t yet an estimation of what sort of money that brings in, but it’s likely to be a tidy sum. To be sure, the marginal benefits of additional renewable energy production will start to fall in the future. That is, for every new megawatt of renewable energy produced, an equal amount of pollution won’t be avoided, which means the number of lives saved, and monetary benefits generated, will fall. But Millstein thinks that we won’t reach that point for some time—at least in the US”.
We add that In 2015, an LSE article referred to an IMF report which quantified the subsidies provided for the fossil fuel industry, finding the UK was to spend £26 billion that year, far more than the subsidies provided for renewables. It would be good to see a similar cost-benefit study for the UK – China and India have already been covered.
One of the biggest criticisms of the renewable-energy industry has been that it is propped up by government subsidies (often disregarding those delivered to the fossil fuel industry). As Rathi adds, there is no doubt that without government help it would have been much harder for the nascent technology to mature.
There has been a financial return on taxpayers’ investment and above all, we repeat, the enormous benefits of avoided deaths, fewer sick days, and climate-change mitigation.
Akshat Rathi is a reporter for Quartz in London. He has previously worked at The Economist and The Conversation. His writing has appeared in Nature, The Guardian and The Hindu. He has a PhD in chemistry from Oxford University and a BTech in chemical engineering from the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai.