Air quality scientist says moving to clean energy could save lives

An air quality scientist at UW-Madison says incorporating low-carbon energy sources into air pollution mitigation plans could save dozens of lives throughout the Midwest.

Tracey Holloway is the Gaylord Nelson Distinguished Professor at the university’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. As part of an Earth Day event held yesterday in Madison, she highlighted research exploring the potential “free benefits” to human health of moving the economy toward lower emissions.

Under the national Clean Air Act, every state that violates certain air pollution standards must develop what’s known as a “state implementation plan,” detailing a strategy for cleaning up the air.

According to Holloway, energy efficiency has only been incorporated into one state implementation plan, in Texas. And wind, solar and other low-carbon energy sources have never been used in any state’s implementation plan, she said.

For Holloway’s analysis, researchers modeled the impacts of an implementation plan across all U.S. states that included energy efficiency and these newer energy sources. They used an energy efficiency scenario provided by The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

“We used the most advanced models from the EPA, and ran the numbers in a way that provides a roadmap for how different states might use this data,” Holloway said.

Under the scenario they modeled, Wisconsin would save about five lives per year due to reduced particulate matter in the air. And the state would save two lives per year due to reduced ozone levels.

The particulate matter reduction would have even greater impacts in other Midwest states, according to her data, saving 16 lives per year in Illinois and 26 in Ohio.

Holloway says her team is currently running the same numbers for other health impacts, looking at asthma rates for groups in various communities.

“The good news is, anything we do to move away from fossil fuel-based transportation, like electric vehicles, and anything we can do to move away from fossil electricity — whether it’s nuclear, solar, wind or conservation — all of these are wins across the board,” she said.

Holloway also said air pollution control efforts are already having “great benefits” on human health.

“In fact, when you put a dollar value on those benefits, it’s about $30 of health benefits for every $1 you invest in these expensive controls,” Holloway said yesterday at the Earth Day event in Madison.

She explained the United States has enacted relatively tight air pollution controls on motor vehicles and power plants, greatly reducing non-carbon air pollutants in the past two decades or so.

Still, the amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere has gone up even as these controls improve air quality in other ways.

Around the world, she said air pollution accounts for one in seven deaths, making air pollution the largest environmental health risk for humans. While most of those deaths are in developing economies, Holloway says nearly half of the U.S. population lives in counties that fail to meet health-based air standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

She said parts of California and the East Coast have the most severe violations in the country, but noted “even in a place like Wisconsin, we have some air quality challenges.”

Holloway pointed to a map of Wisconsin that showed the state is violating clean air standards for ozone along much of the shoreline of Lake Michigan, as well as standards for airborne sulfur dioxide in parts of Oneida County.

While the state faces its own air quality issues, Wisconsin companies are investing in some of the “expensive” solutions Holloway says are leading to major human health benefits.

For example, Alliant Energy has spent around $900 million on air pollution controls for a power plant in Portage.

“These are very, very expensive controls but that have great benefits,” she said. “They’re making us live longer and live healthier lives.”

See more from Holloway’s team and others at the Nelson Institute’s Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment.  

–By Alex Moe