The Environmental and Public Health Benefits of Achieving High Penetration of Solar Energy in the United States

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Monetizing the environmental health benefits of solar could add ~3.5¢/kWh to the value of solar energy (see Wiser et al. 2016). The monetary impacts due to environmental degradation and public health impacts seem far removed from the apparent “sticker price” of electricity. Yet quantifying these impacts is essential to understanding the true costs and benefits of solar and conventional generating technologies. Compared with fossil fuel generators, PV and CSP produce far lower lifecycle levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and harmful pollutants including fine particular matter (PM2.5), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Achieving the SunShot-level solar deployment targets—14% of U.S. electricity demand met by solar in 2030 and 27% in 2050—could reduce cumulative power-sector GHG emissions by 10% between 2015 and 2050, resulting in savings of $238–$252 billion.  This is equivalent to 2.0–2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour of solar installed (¢/kWh-solar). Similarly, realizing these levels of solar deployment could reduce cumulative power-sector emissions of PM2.5 by 8%, SO2 by 9%, and NOx by 11% between 2015 and 2050. This could produce $167 billion in savings from lower future health and environmental damages, or 1.4¢/kWh-solar—while also preventing 25,000–59,000 premature deaths. To put this in perspective, the estimated 3.5¢/kWh-solar in benefits due to SunShot-level solar deployment is approximately equal to the additional LCOE reduction needed to make unsubsidized utility-scale solar competitive with conventional generators today. In addition, water savings from achieving the SunShot goals, could result in the 2015–2050 cumulative savings of 4% of total power-sector withdrawals and 9% of total power-sector consumption—a particularly important consideration for arid states where substantial solar will be deployed. Improving public health and the environment is but one aspect of solar’s many costs and benefits. Clearly, however, the assignment of value to such “external” impacts has potential implications for policy innovation and the economic competitiveness of solar and other generation technologies.

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