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People of color hit hardest by air pollution: EPA needs to consider this in benefit-cost assessments of policies

This blog was co-authored by Jeremy Proville, Director: Office of the Chief Economist, and Ananya Roy, Senior Health Scientist at EDF.

New analysis finds that prevalent methods of assessing impacts of air pollution underestimate pollution’s health impacts on people of color.

Everyone has the right to breathe clean air. Yet communities of color, falsely labeled as “hazardous” in the 1930s, experienced decades of depressed property values and higher siting of industrial facilities and highways, resulting in higher exposure to air pollution. Environmental racism like this causes unjust, unequal health harms.

Yet the issue of Environmental Justice and its impact on health extends beyond disparate exposure alone. Communities of color are exposed to higher levels of air pollution and are more vulnerable to that air pollution. Racist policies, institutional practices, and disenfranchisement have caused disinvestment in housing, transportation, economic opportunity, education, food, access to health care, and beyond in these communities. All of these overlapping inequities not only manifest in health disparities for these families, but also result in greater health impacts from pollution exposure. In fact, a recent study of 60 million Medicare beneficiaries found that older Black people are three times more likely to die from exposure to pollution than white people when exposed to the same levels of fine particle air pollution or soot.

The federal government usually assumes that air pollution exposes everyone to the same risk. Yet the risks are not the same. The disparate harm caused by pollution to Black and Hispanic communities cannot be ignored, and should be addressed directly in estimating the benefits and costs of pollution policies in order to ensure that everyone’s health and wellbeing is protected.

New research uncovers how pollution impacts have been underestimated

In a new journal article in Environmental Health Perspectives, EDF researchers and Carnegie Mellon University professor Nicholas Muller leverage this new understanding of racial/ethnic disparities in air pollution-caused mortality risks. The work seeks to understand the policy impacts of using race/ethnic-specific inputs rather than using data inputs that average the effects across all populations.

We find that using data inputs that average health response across race/ethnicity (effectively ignoring these real differences across groups) leads to:

  • An underestimate of the overall mortality impacts of air pollution to all populations by 9%
  • An undervaluation of the total costs of pollution across the country by $100 billion.

But this is even more damaging for Black families, as taking into account the larger impact of pollution on their health would increase their estimated pollution-caused burden by 150%.

This has real-world implications for cost-benefit analyses associated with air pollution improvement policies. For example, the Mercury Air Toxics Standard (MATS), a policy that helped reduce pollution from the electric sector, provided much larger benefits to Black people than previously understood: by not accounting for the fact that air pollution is more harmful to these communities, an assessment of the policy would underestimate MATS’ benefits to Black families by 60%.

Changing approaches at the federal level

In EPA’s Policy Assessment for the Reconsideration of the Particulate Matter National Ambient Air Quality Standards (PM NAAQS), the agency has used, for the first time, methods similar to our study to assess the distributional benefits of strengthening the standard.

The results indicate that, when considering both exposure and vulnerability differences across race/ethnicity, older Black people in 30 metropolitan areas bear 27% (13,600 premature deaths) of the mortality burden of PM2.5 at an annual PM2.5 standard of 12 µg/m3, despite making up only 13% of the total population. Strengthening the annual PM2.5 standard from 12 to 8 µg/m3 would result in 4,260 fewer air pollution-attributable premature deaths in Black communities (representing 31% of the total prevented PM2.5– mortality benefits).

Without this type of race/ethnicity-specific information on pollution vulnerability, the EPA would not have been able to accurately estimate the benefits to communities from lower pollution concentrations. This kind of assessment needs to become the rule rather than the exception.

Our data choices matter

Our findings have a very clear implication for policy: when thinking about air quality policy, government agencies should use the most up-to-date race/ethnicity-specific inputs to understand and reduce environmental injustices, especially in the context of estimating benefits and costs of policies. Being agnostic to existing differences in pollution impacts across race/ethnicity obscures the benefits we could achieve by improving our air quality – both for communities of color, but also for society as a whole.

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Energy Justice and the Just Transition in the Power Sector – New Research and Policy Approaches

This post is the first in a series dedicated to the future of the electricity sector and new scholarship supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Each post is based on a discussion between select researchers and experts working on relevant policy. To learn more and join one of our upcoming conversations, visit the series website.

While scholars across academia, nongovernmental organizations and think tanks are grappling with transitioning to a cleaner, more efficient, reliable and equitable electric grid, bridging the gap between research and policy is critical to making informed decisions that will impact consumers, communities and the environment.

As we shift from fossil fuels to a cleaner grid, ensuring that no one is left behind and all communities can benefit is critical to a successful transition. EDF and New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity at the NYU School of Law, with the support of a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, are highlighting some of the most exciting research emerging from teams funded by the Foundation in a series of webinars with leading scholars and relevant policy experts.

Our first conversation—which you can watch here—examined how to make the transition for ratepayers, utilities and communities equitable, so people and communities can prosper as we move to cleaner sources of energy. The conversation, moderated by EDF’s Lauren Navarro, Senior Manager, Regulatory and Legislative Affairs, featured a panel including: Dr. Charles Sims, Director of the Energy and Environment Program at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Pubic Policy at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Dr. Roman Sidortsov, Associate Professor of Energy Policy at Michigan Technical University; and Raya Salter, an attorney, energy justice advocate and member of the New York State Climate Action Council.

Distributed solar adoption’s impacts on the grid and its customers

Dr. Sims led us through a recent simulation he developed of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), modeling the individual decision to adopt rooftop solar panels and the impacts this adoption would have on grid and electricity costs. His agent-based computational model allowed his team to examine which groups would benefit and whether any groups may be worse off.

One of their important findings was that low-income incentive programs have helped close the gap of solar adoption between low- and high-income customers. However, they also found that net metering programs, which allow solar owners to be paid the full retail rate for solar generation, have widened the gap, likely due to a cost shifting between the two income groups.

New opportunities for old mines

Dr. Roman Sidortsov discussed his research on the barriers and opportunities associated with using underground mines as energy storage sites utilizing the pumped storage hydropower method (PUSH), a key technology to achieving a clean grid.

Dr. Sidortsov’s project examined whether old mines could take advantage of upper- and lower-level reservoirs to pump water through a hydroelectric turbine to generate power using a series of different designs. Leveraging an old mine in Negaunee, Michigan, as a case study, they found that not only could the mine serve the surrounding county’s population of 30,000 people continuously for 3.5 months; it could also to do so at a profit. Dr. Sidortsov sees great potential for nearly 1,000 decommissioned mines across the country to be used as storage facilities, which are already electrified and connected to a transmission system; this solution can help achieve a just transition in communities that would otherwise have been left behind as coal and mining are phased out.

Developing just transition policies in New York

Ms. Salter shared current progress under New York state’s ambitious 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The law, which aims to move the state to an economy-wide net zero goal by 2050, includes several provisions devoted to energy justice.

In addition to the Climate Action Council, the law also created a Just Transition Working Group, comprised of justice advocates, labor representatives, utilities and others. This group is charged with identifying electric generating facilities that may close due to the transition, studying job and workforce needs and providing recommendations to the council for how to best handle the transition equitably.

New York state is, as Ms. Salter noted, a tale of two grids. The upstate region benefits from greater access to hydroelectric power and renewables, while regions downstate draw an overwhelming percentage of their power from fossil fuels. She and others on the council are looking at ways to improve transmission from upstate to western and downstate regions to take advantage of the renewable generation pockets necessary to achieve the state’s goals. She and her colleagues are also hoping to address the need for long-duration storage to fill some of the renewable gaps the state experiences in winter.

Connecting research and policy

Ms. Navarro asked Drs. Sims and Sidortsov how their research directly applied to Ms. Salter’s policy work in New York and beyond. Dr. Sims explained that he initially gravitated toward the transition to solar, due to the existing gap in low- and high-income customers’ adoption. “There is also the fear that utilities will have to raise their rates,” disproportionately impacting low-income customers. Avoiding this scenario will depend on policy action and a greater understanding of any potential negative impacts caused by certain policies encouraging greater adoption of rooftop solar; academic research can thus help highlight any unintended outcomes from policy adoption.

Dr. Sims also sees connections between the retirement of coal plants and the subsequent impacts on local communities and low-income rate payers in rural communities, who may face price shocks due to large-scale adoption in higher-income, urban areas. He sees a lot of opportunity study how different policies can improve conditions for lower-income consumers.

Dr. Sidortsov said his work was conducted with the transition in mind, as he specifically considered the layered benefits for communities who may have been negatively impacted by the shuttering of mines. He hopes PUSH storage facilities could turn existing liabilities into assets, so communities that have been overburdened by risk could experience renewed prosperity.

Panelists also discussed the importance of listening to community concerns. Ms. Salter explained that energy justice goes beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For mass adoption to take place, we need to consider aspects that may prevent communities from welcoming renewable facilities, especially as policymakers consider how some have already been unequally harmed by the fossil fuel industry.

Overall, this conversation showed how research can contribute to identifying equitable policies, but also the importance of having policy guide new avenues of research. When it comes to achieving a clean and efficient electric grid, we must think about the role that this transition plays in helping improve equitable outcomes, and whether policies may exacerbate existing inequities.

Looking ahead to stakeholders

The panelists’ interest in communities is apt, as it will serve as the next topic in our series. Our upcoming policy and research conversation, to be held December 16th, 10:30am ET, will examine public acceptance and governance topics for energy policy. Moderated by Dr. Elizabeth Wilson of Dartmouth, the panel includes Dr. Tanya Heikkila (University of Colorado Denver), Dr. David Konisky (Indiana University), Dr. Kate Konschnik (Duke University) and Amanda Ormond (Western Grid).

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Capturing the health benefits of climate policy is critical.

Over the past 30 years, numerous scientific reports have highlighted the health impacts of climate change, starting with the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report in 1990. The report included a short summary on heat stress, vector and water borne diseases and air pollution health effects like asthma and heart attacks.

Yet health impacts are not fully accounted for in cost of carbon estimates – presenting a missed opportunity. Public health researchers and economists should continue to work together to more fully capture the health value of policies that cut climate pollution.

Climate and health

The most recent National Climate Assessment, published in 2018, provides an extensive review of climate change effects on human health in U.S. regions. Public health impacts include:

  • changes in mortality and hospitalizations due to extreme weather events including heat waves, floods, and droughts.
  • changes in vector-, food-, and waterborne infectious diseases.
  • changes in chemical exposures via air, food and water.
  • stresses to mental health.

The World Health Organization (WHO) quantifies global health impacts of climate change, utilizing the burden of disease methodology to estimate mortality and disability-adjusted life years. Based on heat-related mortality, diarrheal disease, malnutrition and malaria, the most recent WHO assessment projected 250,000 additional deaths per year in 2030 – despite only quantifying a subset of health impacts from climate change.

The Lancet has also commissioned several series of articles and reports detailing the human health implications of climate change. After the Paris Agreement, the outlet initiated the Lancet Countdown, tracking the status of health effects from climate change through reporting on numerous indicators across impacts, exposures and vulnerabilities, as well as adaptation and mitigation actions. For example, the most recent Lancet report estimated a 53.7% increase in heat-related mortality over the last 20 years and an estimated 15% increase in climate suitability for transmission of dengue.

Health benefits largely absent

Benefit-cost analysis – typically managed by economists – is a cornerstone of U.S. regulatory analysis. The U.S. Government is required to use a monetized estimate of the net impacts of global climate change, referred to as the social cost of carbon (SCC), in regulatory rulemakings of greenhouse gas emissions. The current models used to estimate the SCC incorporate impacts to agriculture productivity, energy use, property damage and, within the health sector, an estimation of changes in cold and heat-related mortality.

Yet, while the research community continues to provide more detailed characterizations of climate change’s health effects, health researchers have been less involved in applying these findings to estimate the SCC. As a result, health is still not fully represented in the SCC.

Quantification of health benefits, like lives saved and hospitalizations avoided, can provide critical justification for and evidence of success of environmental policies. For example, the regulatory impact analysis of the Clean Power Plan included an estimation of health and other benefits from reduced greenhouse gas emissions using the SCC estimate, as well as expected health co-benefits via reduced air pollution.

Improving health benefits estimates

A 2017 National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine report recommended two critical research needs for advancing the science behind the SCC estimate:

  1. Updating health damage modules to incorporate recent health literature.
  2. Improving delineation of the different effects of climate change across regions of the world – e.g., trying to determine the different health impacts expected in different areas.

Since the release of this report, several groups have been working to address these recommendations. For example, the Climate Impact Lab has developed an improved temperature-related mortality estimate that incorporates adaptation and delineates distributional effects across areas of the globe.

A recent analysis utilized WHO, Climate Impact Lab, and Lancet Countdown temperature-mortality functions to produce estimated mortality costs associated with climate change – suggesting a seven-fold increase in estimated monetary damages from previous estimates. In other words, adding in more specific health damage estimates increased the estimated cost of carbon pollution by seven times—from $37 to $258 per metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted.

Although climate change is a global phenomenon, the impacts are unequal and disproportionately burden underserved, low-income and marginalized communities. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that socially vulnerable populations are likely to experience the most severe harms from climate change. Evaluating distributional health effects of climate change at a finer geographical scale could help policymakers address inequities.

It’s critical for policymakers to have accurate information to weigh the benefits and costs of cutting carbon. With health researchers involved, benefit-cost analyses can more accurately capture the threat that climate change poses to people’s health – and the benefits that come with acting on climate.

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How can the U.S. gas pipeline system support a path to net-zero GHG emissions by 2050?

An economist’s guide to filling in the research gaps.

Natural gas currently accounts for more than a third of U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions, but efforts to decarbonize the economy – in particular by replacing gas with electricity in a wide variety of critical applications – imply decreasing future gas demand and CO2 emissions from the industrial and building sectors as well as the power sector.

Resolving the economic and regulatory challenges that follow from this will require filling in crucial knowledge gaps about the U.S. gas transportation system – and how that market could be designed to support the energy transition.

An energy system already in transition

Transitioning the U.S. to a clean energy system is a critical step toward the long-term goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The U.S. power system has already taken steps in the right direction. More electricity is coming from variable renewable energy sources (VREs) like solar and wind, while coal plants are being retired.

But even when we factor in options like energy storage, demand response and build out of electric transmission capacity, gas-fired generators will likely continue to have a role in the next decades by providing peak and ramping capacity at times when electricity production from wind and solar is low or electricity demand is high.

This, in turn, means that the country’s vast network of interstate gas pipelines has its own role to play in the US energy transition.

The problem is that the pipeline transportation market was built to support predictable, relatively constant demand (e.g. industry and buildings). It is not currently designed to accommodate the variability of demand from gas-fired power plants which can fluctuate significantly by the hour – or even more frequently. Nor is the pipeline system designed to be compatible with other low-carbon fuel options or phased down as electrification increases.

More economics research needed

To reconcile this disconnect, we need a much better understanding of how the pipeline market works, and how it could work. Compared to U.S. power markets, the interstate gas pipeline transportation market is characterized by opaque operations and practices and has not been studied much by economists. This has limited the economic analysis available to support decision-making by policy makers and stakeholders looking to address this problem.

More research and analysis is needed to inform how design, regulation and operation of the US gas transportation market can be improved, and the stranded asset risk and associated distributional impacts managed.

To stimulate and facilitate new research in this area important to the US energy transition, I recently published an introductory guide to the U.S. gas pipeline transportation market for researchers and energy market analysts. It outlines the main market features and regulations important for understanding the U.S. gas transportation market.

The objective is to facilitate further research that will help answer questions like:

  • Who is, or should be, shouldering the costs of gas transportation infrastructure and bearing the risk of some of these assets becoming stranded in a low-carbon-energy future? How should such long-term stranded asset risk be managed in the face of electrification and decarbonization?
  • What changes are needed in the gas transportation markets to provide more flexible gas delivery services to gas-fired generators that provide valuable balancing in the power markets?
  • What role can hydrogen play in U.S. decarbonization efforts? How could a potential hydrogen market be created and which parts of the gas pipeline network would be beneficial to make compatible with hydrogen transportation, given potential centers of hydrogen supply and demand.

By publishing this paper, we hope to inspire PhD students, researchers, consultancies and market analysts to conduct analyses on this topic crucially important to the U.S. energy transition. Such new research would ideally generate policy-relevant conclusions on how to reform the U.S. gas pipeline transportation market – and next be communicated to  energy market regulators and policy makers to support decision-making that will facilitate the US transition to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

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Solar power can have positive health impacts for Chile’s most vulnerable. Here’s how.

We know that solar power helps replace fossil fuel generation, getting the world closer to the international goal of keeping global warming to 1.5°C. But does it have other benefits? What happens to people’s health if we replace coal generation with solar power?

The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is one of the world’s most extreme landscapes. It is often used by NASA and film companies to stand in for Mars and is the sunniest place on Earth. It is also the best place in the world for solar power.

Since 2012, Chile has installed over 3300MW of solar power throughout the country, with a large percentage built in the regions in and surrounding the Atacama Desert. This rapid introduction of large-scale solar capacity makes the Atacama region a perfect case study for us to look at the health benefits of solar power replacing fossil fuel generation.

Due to Chile’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels, the country’s power sector releases large amounts of local air pollutants, including sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOX), mercury (Hg) and particulate matter (PM). All of these pollutants are associated with adverse health effects, along with increased hospital admissions, mortality risks and threats to life expectancy. Annual air pollution in Chile generally exceeds life-threatening levels with daily average fine PM concentrations well above World Health Organization guidelines. Thus, Chile’s growing reliance on renewables is extremely important from a health perspective.

To that end, my co-authors and I have spent the past two years investigating the health benefits that solar generation produced in northern Chile due to this massive solar expansion. Our research found that the investments in solar capacity led to a displacement of daily coal- and gas-fired power generation. We estimated a direct, causal link between greater installed solar capacity and fewer cardiovascular and respiratory admissions due to reduced pollution from fossil fuel generation. Importantly, reductions were largest among the most vulnerable age groups: infants, children (ages 6–14), and seniors.

To estimate the effect, we relied upon wind direction to identify which cities were downwind of and close to the fossil fuel plants we found to be displaced by solar. For the populations living within 10km of displaced plants, we estimate that 1GWh of solar generation reduced annual respiratory hospital admissions by 13% on average. Similar findings, with decreasing magnitudes, occur in cities 50km and 100km downwind of displaced coal and gas-fired generation.

Our conclusions remained unchanged after several robustness checks, including the use of cities upwind of displaced facilities and those downwind of non-displaced units, as well as the use of hospital admissions of patients with diseases presumably not related to air pollution.

This research quantifies some of the benefits that solar power can provide in terms of reducing health impacts of air pollution in developing nations, yet our findings are likely an underestimate of the total health benefits that can emerge from solar generation. This is because:

  • Chile’s northern region has limited healthcare infrastructure. This means any reduction in hospitalizations increases the number of hospital beds available, which helps reduce the number of untreated unrelated injuries and illnesses.
  • Reductions in air pollution exposure for young children and infants has a lifelong benefit in terms of reduced illnesses and improved economic outcomes.
  • As demonstrated in both the US and India, disadvantaged populations often live closer to large air polluters. If this is the case, improvements in air quality may also help to reduce inequality.
  • Though the area we studied has relatively low population density, we were able to estimate a significant benefit on health outcomes- thus, solar’s contribution to cleaner air will produce even larger benefits in more populated regions or countries.     

Our research is a working paper published in the Environmental Defense Fund Economics Discussion Paper Series. You can download the paper for free here. This blog was co-authored with Nathaly M. Rivera, Research Fellow at the University of São Paulo.

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