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Harvard Study Shows Where Investments in Renewable Energy Can Be Most Effective for Climate and Health

A new study by the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment, also known as C-CHANGE, shows that the best way to maximize the benefits of renewable energy for every euro invested is to install wind and solar farms where most of the electricity comes from burning coal, like India, rather than a place where clean energy is already the norm, like California.


A wind farm in India can completely shut down a coal generating station, leading to a significant reduction in carbon emissions and a major boost to public health in that area. On the other hand, building the same wind farm in California may not have any impact on the local community.

The C-CHANGE study was conducted by the Chan School of Public Health at Harvard. With respect to the location of new renewable energy projects in the United States, it used a similar analysis to determine that it is much more efficient for capital to build new clean energy facilities in the Midwest, which still relies heavily on coal for its electricity, than to build more renewable energy capacity in places like California, which already gets much of its electricity from wind, solar, hydro and other clean energy sources.

“Because renewable energy has climate and health benefits by displacing fossil fuels, the benefits it derives are determined by the fossil fuels it is displacing,” said Jonathan Buonocore, lead author of the study and a research associate at Harvard C-CHANGE. “And not just what you’re displacing, but who lives near the wind, the people who are exposed, and what the health impacts are.

Countries where renewable energy projects should be emphasized include Myanmar, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India and large parts of Eastern Europe. “If you are building renewable energy in Norway or Iceland or a place that already has a lot of renewable energy, you will get a lot less benefit than building in a place like Eastern Europe or India, where you have a lot more coal consumed and many more people exposed to pollutants,” says Buonocore.

What makes the study significant is that it included data related to the results of adding more renewable energy to the health of the local population. Air pollution has been linked to premature death, respiratory and cardiovascular hospitalizations, lung cancer, stroke and even neurocognitive diseases such as autism and Alzheimer’s, Buonocore says. Those data entered into a model that can be used to estimate the benefits of building renewable energy and where that energy can have the greatest impact.

The study found that the climate and health benefits achieved by megawatts of renewable energy changed dramatically depending on the country in which that company operated. A wind company operating primarily in India saves about 250 lives for every additional 1,000 megawatts of wind energy it installs each year. Another wind company that operates primarily in North America and Europe saves only 25 lives with the same amount of annual wind energy installed.

Buonocore hopes this latest study will serve as a guide to help policy makers and investors make the most impactful decisions about where to focus renewable energy efforts, helping to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. “Many sustainability investors are trying to have a positive social impact with their investments,” he says. “The idea is that this kind of information would help those kinds of people focus better on what they invest in and where.

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