Air Pollution From Power Plants Is Dropping—and We’re Breathing Easier as a Result

Wind, solar, and natural gas cut into coal's dominance of the power supply.
(Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Jul 17, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

In his first inauguration speech, Ronald Reagan famously stated, “Government is not the solution to our problem—government is the problem.”

But the effects of air pollution reduction measures passed by Congress and signed in 1990 by the next president, George H.W. Bush, tell a different story.

Between 1990 and 2014, sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide pollution from most of the nation’s power plants have dropped 80 percent and 75 percent, respectively, according to a new report.

Although SO2 and NOx were originally targeted in the 1990 Clean Air Act update because they cause acid rain, scientists subsequently figured out they have an even more direct impact on human health: Under the right conditions in the atmosphere, they can transform into small particle pollution, which can spur coronary and respiratory illnesses that can sometimes cause premature death.

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As these emissions have fallen in the past 25 years, public health has measurably improved, said Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for national policy at the American Lung Association.

“There are long-term, major studies with a lot of data in them, over time, that have shown that cleaning up pollution has real human health benefits in terms of extending life,” Nolen said. In one of these, a 2012 Harvard University study on air quality impacts in 545 counties, scientists found that between 2000 and 2007, cleaner air increased residents’ life expectancy by an average of four months.

That study built off a long-term research project, known among public health experts as the “Harvard Six Cities study,” that tracked the health impacts of air pollution on thousands of people from 1974 to 2009. The results firmly linked death rates caused by lung cancer and heart disease to higher levels of small particle pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that by 2020, the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments will prevent 230,000 adult and 280 infant deaths from particle pollution every year, along with over 2.4 million serious asthma attacks, 120,000 emergency room visits, and more than 22 million school and work days lost to air pollution–related illnesses. The agency has reported that every dollar spent reducing air pollution creates $3 to $90 in benefits.

The new air pollution analysis was published Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Ceres, Bank of America, and utilities Calpine, Exelon, and Entergy. It assesses emissions of mercury, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide reported to the EPA in 2015 by the nation’s 100 largest producers of electricity, which comprise nearly 90 percent of the market.

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While emissions of carbon dioxide, the leading driver of climate change, were 14 percent above 1990 levels in 2014, they have decreased by 12 percent since 2008, the analysis found.

The reasons include improved energy efficiency, cheaper and lower-carbon natural gas outcompeting coal, declining costs for carbon-free wind and solar power, and slower (although still rising) economic growth rates, according to Starla Yeh, a senior policy analyst for climate and clean air at the NRDC, who contributed to the report.

Solar and wind energy supplies more than doubled between 2008 and 2014, from about 2 percent to 5 percent of the mix. Coal-fired power’s share dropped from 48 percent to 39 percent over the same period, while natural gas–fired power generation grew from 21 percent to 27 percent.

“There’s an expectation that this strong trend will continue. In 2010, renewable capacity in the U.S. totaled about 42 gigawatts. Now, it is over 100 gigawatts. Many analysts expect renewable capacity to double again from 2015 levels by 2021,” said Yeh. “This will put the electricity sector in a great position to help the U.S. reach its international commitments under the Paris climate agreement—which we must reach to help us avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”

Legal challenges from some states and utilities have delayed implementation of the Clean Power Plan—the Obama administration’s signature effort to regulate and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But, Yeh noted, Congress reauthorized two important tax credits for wind and solar power last year. These credits are helping to drive further growth in renewable energy.

"There are many instances and locations where right now, renewable energy is comparable with fossil generation,” she said. “The costs continue to come down, and we’re investing more in energy efficiency—using less energy to do the same amount or more. That’s always been the most cost-effective way to reduce reliance on fossil fuels while growing the economy.”