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The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
  • 2017-06-01 12:05:33
  • Article ID: 675739

Saving Lives and Money: The Potential of Solar to Replace Coal

  • Credit: Sarah Bird/Michigan Tech

    By transitioning to solar photovoltaics (PV) in the US, up to 51,999 American lives would be saved at $1.1 million invested per life.

  • Credit: Emily Prehoda/Michigan Tech

    Certain geographic regions are harder hit by coal-related deaths from air pollution, shown by calculating US deaths per kilowatt hour per year.

In a new study published in Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews, a team from Michigan Technological University calculated the cost of combusting coal in terms of human lives along with the potential benefits of switching to solar.  

Health Impacts

Tens of thousands of Americans die prematurely each year from air pollution-related diseases associated with burning coal. By transitioning to solar photovoltaics (PV) in the US, up to 51,999 American lives would be saved at $1.1 million invested per life.

"Unlike other public health investments, you get more than lives saved," says Joshua Pearce, a professor of materials science and electrical engineering at Michigan Tech. "In addition to saving lives, solar is producing electricity, which has economic value."

Using a sensitivity analysis on the value of electricity, which examines the different costs of electricity that varies by region throughout the country, saving a life by using solar power also showed potential to make money—sometimes as much as several million dollars per life, says Pearce.

"Everybody wants to avoid wasting money. Just based off the pure value of electricity of the sensitivities we looked at, it's profitable to save American lives by eliminating coal with solar," he explains.

Pearce worked with energy policy doctoral student Emily Prehoda on the study, and their main goal was to better inform health policy. They gathered data from peer-reviewed journals and the Environmental Protection Agency to calculate US deaths per kilowatt hour per year for both coal and solar. Then they used current costs of solar installations from the Department of Energy and calculated the potential return on investment. 

Pearce and Prehoda also analyzed the geographic impact of coal-related deaths. "Here, we have solid numbers on how many people die from air pollution and what fraction of that is due to coal-powered plants in each state." 

Power of Solar

To fully replace all the coal production in the US with solar PV, it would take 755 gigawatts—a significant increase compared to the 22.7 gigawatts of solar installed in the US currently. The total cost of installing that much solar power totals $1.5 trillion, but that investment is figured into Pearce and Prehoda's calculations, and is a profitable investment.

As Pearce sums it up: "Solar has come down radically in cost, it's technically viable, and coupled with natural gas plants, other renewables and storage, we have ways to produce all the electricity we need without coal, period."

He says resisting the rise of solar energy is akin to if computer manufacturers kept using vacuum tube switches instead of upgrading to semiconductor transistors.

"My overall takeaway from this study," Pearce says, "is that if we're rational and we care about American lives—or even just money—then it's time to end coal in the US."

Next Steps

The World Health Organization reports that millions die each year from unhealthy environment, air pollution notably the largest contributor to non-communicable diseases like stroke, cancers, chronic respiratory illnesses and heart disease. Future work can expand this study globally. 

"There's roughly seven million people who die globally from air pollution every year, so getting rid of coal could take a big chunk out of that number as well," Pearce says, adding that another goal of future research is to dig deeper into the life cycles of coal production as this study only looked at air pollution-related deaths. Doing so will continue to illuminate the multiple positive impacts of solar power and its potential to do more than keep the lights on.

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High-Speed Movie Aids Scientists Who Design Glowing Molecules

In a recent experiment conducted at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, a research team used bright, ultrafast X-ray pulses from SLAC's X-ray free-electron laser to create a high-speed movie of a fluorescent protein in action. With that information, the scientists began to design a marker that switches more easily, a quality that can improve resolution during biological imaging.

Biomass-Produced Electricity in the US Possible, but It'll Cost

If the U.S. wants to start using wood pellets to produce energy, either the government or power customers will have to pay an extra cost, a new University of Georgia study has found.

Scientists Make Atoms-Thick Post-It Notes for Solar Cells and Circuits

In a study published Sept. 20 in Nature, UChicago and Cornell University researchers describe an innovative method to make stacks of semiconductors just a few atoms thick. The technique offers scientists and engineers a simple, cost-effective method to make thin, uniform layers of these materials, which could expand capabilities for devices from solar cells to cell phones.

Titan Helps Researchers Suck Mystery Out of Cell's 'Vacuum Cleaners'

In cancer cells, a membrane transport protein called P-glycoprotein, or Pgp, actively pumps anticancer drugs out of the cell, contributing to multidrug resistance. Recently, a team led by computational biophysicist Emad Tajkhorshid from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) used the Titan supercomputer to uncover new details about Pgp that could help the drug discovery community manipulate Pgp function.

Laser-Free Method of Ion Cooling Has Range of Potential Uses

Prof. Daniel Zajfman's universal ion trap cools to a tenth of a degree above absolute zero. The new method does not depend on the type or the weight of the ion and, thus, might be used to investigate the properties of large biological molecules or nanoparticles, among other things.

Tiny Lasers from a Gallery of Whispers

Whispering gallery mode resonators rely on a phenomenon similar to an effect observed in circular galleries, and the same phenomenon applies to light. When light is stored in ring-shaped or spherical active resonators, the waves superimpose in such a way that it can result in laser light. This week in APL Photonics, investigators report a new type of dye-doped WGM micro-laser that produces light with tunable wavelengths.

Copper Catalyst Yields High Efficiency CO2-to-Fuels Conversion

Berkeley Lab scientists have developed a new electrocatalyst that can directly convert carbon dioxide into multicarbon fuels and alcohols using record-low inputs of energy. The work is the latest in a round of studies coming out of Berkeley Lab tackling the challenge of a creating a clean chemical manufacturing system that can put carbon dioxide to good use.

Solar-to-Fuel System Recycles CO2 to Make Ethanol and Ethylene

Berkeley Lab scientists have harnessed the power of photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide into fuels and alcohols at efficiencies far greater than plants. The achievement marks a significant advance in the effort to move toward sustainable sources of fuel.

New Evidence for Small, Short-Lived Drops of Early Universe Quark-Gluon Plasma?

UPTON, NY--Particles emerging from even the lowest energy collisions of small deuterons with large heavy nuclei at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC)--a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science User Facility for nuclear physics research at DOE's Brookhaven National Laboratory--exhibit behavior scientists associate with the formation of a soup of quarks and gluons, the fundamental building blocks of nearly all visible matter.

New Insights Into Nanocrystal Growth in Liquid

PNNL researchers have measured the forces that cause certain crystals to assemble, revealing competing factors that researchers might be able to control. The work has a variety of implications in both discovery and applied science. In addition to providing insights into the formation of minerals and semiconductor nanomaterials, it might also help scientists understand soil as it expands and contracts through wetting and drying cycles.


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PPPL Physicist Francesca Poli Named ITER Scientist Fellow

Article describes new ITER Scientist Fellow.

Los Alamos Gains Role in High-Performance Computing for Materials Program

A new high-performance computing initiative announced this week by the U.S. Department of Energy will help U.S. industry accelerate the development of new or improved materials for use in severe environments.

UK Commits $88 Million to LBNF/DUNE in First-Ever Umbrella Science Agreement with U.S.

The UK has committed $88 million to the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility and Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment as part of an umbrella science and technology agreement with the United States.

Wayne State Receives $1.2 Million NSF Grant to Develop Autonomous Battery Operating System

Researchers at Wayne State University led by Nathan Fisher, associate professor of computer science in the College of Engineering, received a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to address the need for effective, integrative battery operating systems that provide sustained and reliable power.

UAH leads effort that secures $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation

A partnership comprising nine universities in Alabama, including The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) as the lead institution, has been awarded a $20 million, five-year grant by the National Science Foundation's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

Sandia Labs Wins 5 Regional Technology Transfer Awards

Sandia National Laboratories won five awards from the 2017 Federal Laboratory Consortium for its work to develop and commercialize innovative technologies.

Tulane Receives Grant to Reduce Auto Emissions

Members of Tulane University's Shantz Lab will work with industrial scientists to assist in the development of next-generation materials designed to reduce harmful automotive emissions. The three-year old lab and its group of students have received a grant and equipment resources from SACHEM, Inc., a chemical science company.

Lab Leads New Effort in Materials Development

Lawrence Livermore National Lab will be part of a multi-lab effort to apply high-performance computing to US-based industry's discovery, design, and development of materials for severe environments under a new initiative announced by the Department of Energy (DOE) on Sept. 19.

ORNL Innovation Crossroads Program Opens Second Round of Energy Entrepreneurial Fellowships

Entrepreneurs are invited to apply for the second round of Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Innovation Crossroads program.

Los Alamos Recognized as Top Diversity Employer

For the second straight year, Los Alamos National Laboratory was recognized as a top diversity employer by LATINA Style and STEM Workforce Diversity magazine.


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Fungi: Gene Activator Role Discovered

Specific modifications to fungi DNA may hold the secret to turning common plant degradation agents into biofuel producers.

First Look at a Living Cell Membrane

Neutrons provide the solution to nanoscale examination of living cell membrane and confirm the existence of lipid rafts.

High Yield Biomass Conversion Strategy Ready for Commercialization

Researchers convert 80 percent of biomass into high-value products with strategy that's ready for commercialization.

Consequences of Drought Stress on Biofuels

Switchgrass cultivated during a year of severe drought inhibited microbial fermentation and resulting biofuel production.

Clay Minerals and Metal Oxides Change How Uranium Travels Through Sediments

Montmorillonite clays prevent uranium from precipitating from liquids, letting it travel with groundwater.

Tundra Loses Carbon with Rapid Permafrost Thaw

Seven-year-study shows plant growth does not sustainably balance carbon losses from solar warming and permafrost thaw.

Crystals Grow by Twisting, Aligning and Snapping Together

Van der Waals force, which that enables tiny crystals to grow, could be used to design new materials.

Vitamin B12 Fuels Microbial Growth

Scarce compound, vitamin B12, is key for cellular metabolism and may help shape microbial communities that affect environmental cycles and bioenergy production.

Carbon in Floodplain Unlikely to Cycle into the Atmosphere

Microbes leave a large fraction of carbon in anoxic sediments untouched, a key finding for understanding how watersheds influence Earth's ecosystem.

Bacterial Cell Wall Changes Produce More Fatty Molecules

New strategy greatly increases the production and secretion of biofuel building block lipids in bacteria able to grow at industrial scales.


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