Why wind energy isn’t living up to its pollution-preventing potential

Wind power isn’t cleaning up as much pollution as it could, especially in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, new research shows. The US’s wind energy boom has already led to billions of dollars of health benefits. But the majority of that hasn’t trickled into communities that have historically been burdened with the most air pollution, finds a study published today in the journal Science Advances. Fortunately, that could change if new wind energy projects are deployed more strategically.

Over the past two decades, wind energy has grown from less than half a percent of the US electricity mix in 2002 to almost 10 percent today. By 2014, increasing amounts of wind energy had measurably improved air quality, resulting in health benefits across the US, according to the new study. But only 32 percent of those benefits reached low-income communities. And just 29 percent reached racial and ethnic minority populations.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, has set a goal of ensuring that 40 percent of the benefits from clean energy reach “disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.”

Wind energy isn’t cleaning up as much pollution as it could, especially in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods

In this study, “health benefits” are actually a matter of life and death. They essentially put a dollar amount on deaths that are prevented by cleaning up the air. In this case, they estimated that by 2014, wind energy contributed to $2 billion in health benefits, spurred on by renewable electricity standards set by dozens of states. And while the US has improved its air quality since the 1970 Clean Air Act, there’s still a lot of progress to make. More than 137 million Americans, about 40 percent of the population, live in locales that received failing grades for air pollution from the American Lung Association.

Moreover, the health risks that come with breathing in that dirty air are unevenly spread. People of color are 3.6 times more likely to live in counties with multiple failing air pollution grades. Low-income communities in the US have also been consistently exposed to more particulate pollution than more affluent neighborhoods.

The new study published today, which was partially funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, focuses on particulate and ground-level ozone from electricity generation in the US between 2011 and 2017. During that timeframe, new wind farms managed to minimize disparities in air quality in some places. But the growth of wind power also led to even greater pollution disparities in other places. That might be the case, for instance, if renewable energy investments stay concentrated in places with more white, affluent residents and that already have relatively good air quality.

The research shows that to squeeze out the greatest health benefits, wind farms need to intentionally replace coal and gas power plants. And to clean up the most polluted places — particularly those with more residents of color and low-income households — those communities need to be in focus when deploying new renewable energy projects.

To squeeze out the greatest health benefits, wind farms need to intentionally replace coal and gas power plants

“If we can tweak the system a little bit … let wind power displace some of the more polluting or damaging plants, that could actually lead to an even higher magnitude of the air quality health benefits,” says Minghao Qiu, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford who led this research while studying at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Qiu and his colleagues found that if planners prioritize displacing the most damaging fossil fuel power plants with wind farms, then the $2 billion in health benefits from wind energy in 2014 would more than quadruple to $8.4 billion. But even more targeted measures will be needed to ensure that those benefits reach folks who need them the most.

It’s something to keep in mind as the Biden administration tries to reach its clean energy targets. “One message our work really emphasizes is it requires a lot more effort in some sense to really achieve those kinds of environmental justice goals laid out by the current administration,” Qiu tells The Verge.

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