Researchers: Solar/Wind Power More Beneficial in Eastern U.S.

Jul 1, 2013

California has more solar panels soaking up the sun and creating electricity than any other state, but researchers say those panels would be better off in places like cloudy Pittsburgh.

Carnegie Mellon University researchers said the same is true in western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia when it comes to wind farms.

Kyle Siler-Evans, co-author of the recently published research paper, said the goal of solar and wind power is to mitigate climate damages and improve health and air quality, but the plants are going out west where they are not needed as much.

“For example, a solar panel in Pennsylvania, even though it puts out 50 percent less energy than a solar panel in Arizona, you get about 14 times more health and environmental benefits,” Siler-Evans said. “And the reason for that is, by displacing really old, dirty coal plants here, you get much more benefits compared to Arizona.”

But that is not how the nation’s energy policy thinks.

Siler-Evans noted the Southwest has already replaced its electricity production systems with relatively clean natural gas generation, but the current federal wind and solar power subsidies encourage putting the plants where they would provide the highest energy output.

“Policy makers and tax payers, we have to decide … what our goals are for wind or solar and better align those subsidies so that we’re actually encouraging private developers to seek sights that give the greatest benefits rather than just the greatest energy output,” Siler-Evans said.

Siler-Evans said the nation should build a new matrix to evaluate wind and solar power projects.

“We estimate in this paper that in certain regions that wind or solar provides about 10 cents a kilowatt hour in social benefits, and so if you were to credit wind or solar with those benefits, give them money for the benefits that they provide, it would hugely change the economics,” Siler-Evans said.

Siler-Evans said the exact negative economic impact of climate damage is still uncertain, but the researchers used the Social Cost of Carbon, a system used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that estimates the economic damages that come with a small increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

“We assume for every ton of CO2 emissions emitted, that results in 20 dollars in damages to society, and so if we were to put wind or solar into the system and replace those CO2 emissions, then we get those 20 dollars in benefits for every ton that we displace,” Siler-Evans said.