Doe Science news source
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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DRIFTing to Fast, Precise Data

Non-destructive technique identifies key variations in Alaskan soils, quickly providing insights into carbon levels.

A Shortcut to Modeling Sickle Cell Disease

Using Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Titan supercomputer, a team led by Brown University's George Karniadakis devised a multiscale model of sickle cell disease that captures what happens inside a red blood cell affected by the disease.

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X-Rays Reveal 'Handedness' in Swirling Electric Vortices

Scientists used spiraling X-rays at Berkeley Lab to observe, for the first time, a property that gives left- or right-handedness to swirling electric patterns - dubbed polar vortices - in a layered material called a superlattice.

Breaking Bad Metals with Neutrons

By combining the latest developments in neutron scattering and theory, researchers are close to predicting phenomena like superconductivity and magnetism in strongly correlated electron systems. It is likely that the next advances in superconductivity and magnetism will come from such systems, but they might also be used in completely new ways such as quantum computing.

ORNL Researchers Use Titan to Accelerate Design, Training of Deep Learning Networks

For deep learning to be effective, existing neural networks to be modified, or novel networks designed and then "trained" so that they know precisely what to look for and can produce valid results. This is a time-consuming and difficult task, but one that a team of ORNL researchers recently demonstrated can be dramatically expedited with a capable computing system.

Dark Energy Survey Publicly Releases First Three Years of Data

At a special session held during the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C., scientists on the Dark Energy Survey (DES) announced today the public release of their first three years of data. This first major release of data from the Survey includes information on about 400 million astronomical objects, including distant galaxies billions of light-years away as well as stars in our own galaxy.

Ingredients for Life Revealed in Meteorites That Fell to Earth

A detailed study of blue salt crystals found in two meteorites that crashed to Earth - which included X-ray experiments at Berkeley Lab - found that they contain both liquid water and a mix of complex organic compounds including hydrocarbons and amino acids.

Rewritable Wires Could Mean No More Obsolete Circuitry

An electric field switches the conductivity on and off in atomic-scale channels, which could allow for upgrades at will.


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Kelsey Stoerzinger Earns Young Investigator Lectureship

Kelsey Stoerzinger, Pauling Fellow at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is one of the 2018 Caltech Young Investigator Lecturers in Engineering and Applied Physics.

North Dakota State University Joins Two National Distributed Computing Groups

The NDSU Center for Computationally Assisted Science and Technology (CCAST) joins OSG (Open Science Grid) and XSEDE (Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment).

DOE Announces Funding for New HPC4Manufacturing Industry Projects

The Department of Energy's Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) today announced the funding of $1.87 million for seven new industry projects under an ongoing initiative designed to utilize DOE's high-performance computing (HPC) resources and expertise to advance U.S. manufacturing and clean energy technologies.

DOE Announces First Awardees for New HPC4Materials for Severe Environments Program

The Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy (FE) today announced the funding of $450,000 for the first two private-public partnerships under a brand-new initiative aimed at discovering, designing and scaling up production of novel materials for severe environments.

Two Argonne Scientists Recognized for a Decade of Breakthroughs

Two scientists with the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have been named to the Web of Science's Highly Cited List of 2017, ranking in the top 1 percent of their peers by citations and subject area. Materials Scientist Khalil Amine and Energy and Environmental Policy Scientist David Streets say they are thrilled to see their work -- and the laboratory -- recognized in such a way.

Argonne Welcomes Department of Energy Secretary Perry

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry visited Argonne National Laboratory yesterday, getting a first-hand view of the multifaceted and interdisciplinary research program laboratory of the Department.

Argonne names John Quintana Deputy Laboratory Director for Operations and COO

John Quintana has been named Deputy Laboratory Director for Operations and Chief Operations Officer (COO) of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory.

Developing Next-Generation Sensing Technologies

Recently, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) announced $20 million in funding for 15 projects that will develop a new class of sensor systems to enable significant energy savings via reduced demand for heating and cooling in residential and commercial buildings.

Supporting the Development of Offshore Wind Power Plants

Offshore wind is becoming a reality in the United States, especially in the northeast states. To support this development, the Center for Future Energy System (CFES) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will present a webinar titled "Turbine and Transmission System Technologies for Offshore Wind (OSW) Power Plants." The program will be held on Wednesday, Dec. 20, from 2 to 4 p.m. Advance registration is required.

LLNL Releases Newly Declassified Nuclear Test Videos

Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) released 62 newly declassified videos today of atmospheric nuclear tests films that have never before been seen by the public.


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Arctic Photosynthetic Capacity and Carbon Dioxide Assimilation Underestimated by Terrestrial Biosphere Models

New measurements offer data vital to projecting plant response to environmental changes.

DRIFTing to Fast, Precise Data

Non-destructive technique identifies key variations in Alaskan soils, quickly providing insights into carbon levels.

Superconducting Tokamaks Are Standing Tall

Plasma physicists significantly improve the vertical stability of a Korean fusion device.

Graphene Flexes Its Muscle

Crumpling reduces rigidity in an otherwise stiff material, making it less prone to catastrophic failure.

Remotely Predicting Leaf Age in Tropical Forests

New approach offers data across species, sites, and canopies, providing insights into carbon uptake by forests.

What's the Noise Eating Quantum Bits?

The magnetic noise caused by adsorbed oxygen molecules is "eating at" the phase stability of quantum bits, mitigating the noise is vital for future quantum computers.

Rewritable Wires Could Mean No More Obsolete Circuitry

An electric field switches the conductivity on and off in atomic-scale channels, which could allow for upgrades at will.

Filtering Water Better than Nature

Water passes through human-made straws faster than the "gold standard" protein, allowing us to filter seawater.

Machine Learning Provides a Bridge to the Texture of the Quantum World

Machine learning and neural networks are the foundation of artificial intelligence and image recognition, but now they offer a bridge to see and recognize exotic insulating phases in quantum materials.

A Rare Quantum State Realized in a New Material

A revolutionary material harbors magnetism and massless electrons that travel near the speed of light--for future ultrasensitive, high-efficiency electronics and sensors.


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