Solar Power Savings

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Switching from coal to solar power could save thousands of lives, according to new research. (Photo credit: Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Transitioning from coal to solar power in the United States could prevent the premature death of nearly 52,000 Americans annually, according to a study recently published in the journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews.

A team of researchers from Michigan Tech University calculated the cost of combusting coal in terms of human lives and the potential benefits of switching to solar power. They determined that switching from coal to solar energy would save 51,999 lives per year and save up to $1.1 million invested per life. The researchers came up with this value by compiling data from peer-reviewed journals and the Environmental Protection Agency to calculate the number of deaths per kilowatt hour per year for energy derived from both coal and solar power. After making these calculations, the researchers used current costs of solar installations procured from the Department of Energy to determine the potential return on investment.

Every year, tens of thousands of Americans die from diseases associated with air pollution caused by the burning of coal. Worldwide, millions of people die annually from diseases associated with living in an unhealthy environment, with air pollution being one of the largest contributors to diseases such as stroke, various cancers, and heart disease.

“Unlike other public health investments, you get more than lives saved [by switching to solar power],” Joshua Pearce, a professor of materials science and electrical engineering at Michigan Tech, said in a press release about the research. “In addition to saving lives, solar is producing electricity, which has economic value … 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.”

Solar power is gaining popularity in the United States. In 2016, more than 10.5 gigawatts of utility-scale solar power–or enough electricity to power 2 million homes–was added to the electrical grid. More than 8 gigawatts are expected to be added to the grid in 2017. This trend is expected to continue for the near future, with total U.S. solar capacity anticipated to nearly triple over the next five years.

Though once limited to sun-soaked southwestern states–77 percent of solar projects are found west of the Rocky Mountains–solar power is beginning to be embraced in northern and eastern states as well. What accounts for the expansion of solar power? Researchers point to plummeting prices for solar photovoltaic panels; swift advancements in technology, including panels that can track the movement of the sun; and support including tax breaks, subsidies, and state renewable energy mandates, though the latter may be in question given the current political environment.

“My overall takeaway from this study 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 U.S.,” Pearce said.

More to Explore
Saving Lives and Money: The Potential of Solar to Replace Coal
Solar Market Insight Report 2016 Year In Review
Northern Lights: Large-Scale Solar Power Is Spreading Across the U.S.


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