Press Release

Most US Counties Could Gain $1M in Annual Health Benefits from a Power Plant Carbon Standard, New Study Shows

Jun 7, 2016
Logos for Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Forest, Resources for the Future, Syracuse University, and Science Policy Exchange

WASHINGTON—Nearly all US regions stand to gain economic benefits from power plant carbon standards that set moderately stringent emission targets and allow a high level of compliance flexibility, according to a new study by scientists from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Syracuse University, Resources for the Future, and the Harvard Forest, Harvard University as a project of the Science Policy Exchange.

The study was published today, June 7, 2016, in the open access journal PLOS ONE. The authors report large national net benefits of approximately $33 billion per year for the power plant carbon standard in the study, based on estimated costs of $17 billion per year and projected benefits of $29 billion for a subset of health co-benefits, and $21 billion for climate benefits.

While other studies have analyzed total national costs and benefits of power plant carbon standards, this is the first study of its kind to break down the costs and benefits by subregion for the entire United States.

"We found that the health benefits would outweigh the estimated costs of the carbon standard in our study for 13 out of 14 power sector regions within five years of implementation—even though we only looked at a subset of the total benefits," said lead author Jonathan Buonocore, Research Associate and Program Leader at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Chan School.

"With the full range of climate, health, and ecosystem benefits taken into account, we would expect that the net benefits would be even larger and that the benefits would outweigh costs in all regions within a year or two of implementation," added co-author Dallas Burtraw, Darius Gaskins Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future.

Power plant carbon standards are aimed at curbing carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector to help address climate change. Depending on how the standards are designed, emissions of secondary pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter may also be reduced as a co-benefit of the policy—leading to improved air quality and associated health benefits such as fewer premature deaths, heart attacks, and hospitalizations from respiratory and cardiovascular impacts.

The study analyzed the anticipated health co-benefits of a power plant carbon standard that would achieve a 35% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 through cleaner fuels, energy efficiency, emissions trading, and other measures. In a previous study, the researchers projected that approximately 3,500 premature deaths, and hundreds of heart attacks and hospitalizations would be avoided in the U.S. each year as a result of this carbon standard. In this new study, the researchers calculated the economic value of those health co-benefits for the nation as a whole by county. Then they compared those benefits to costs that they projected for 14 commonly used power grid regions to estimate net benefits by region.

The researchers found that the benefits would be widespread and, before accounting for costs, most counties would receive more than $1 million in health co-benefits annually from the carbon standard in the study. Counties in the Northeast and Southwest US are projected to gain the largest health co-benefits. The Mid-Atlantic, Ohio River Valley, and South-Central regions of the US are projected to gain the largest health co-benefits per capita (these regions correspond to the power grid regions PJME, PJMC, MISO, SERCC, SERCD, and ERCOT).

The researchers then used three different sets of economic assumptions to estimate the cost of the carbon standard for each of the 14 regions. The results show that the highest costs of $1.5 to $3.6 billion per year are projected for the Midwest (MISO and SERCG), Mid-Atlantic (PJME), and Southeast (SERCC and SERCSE) regions under the central cost case. Those same regions also have among the greatest benefits, ranging from $1.7 billion to $5.6 billion. The largest net benefits occur in the Central Mid-Atlantic region (PJMC).

"Our results suggest that net economic benefits from power plant carbon standards tend to be greatest in highly populated areas near or downwind from coal-fired power plants that experience a shift to cleaner sources with the standards," said co-author Charles Driscoll, University Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Syracuse University.

The power plant carbon standards analyzed in this study are similar to, but not the same as, the Clean Power Plan introduced by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on August 3, 2015. The standard in the study would achieve a 35% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector from 2005 levels by 2020. The costs and benefits were calculated as the difference from a business as usual case based on 2013 energy demand projections from the US Department of Energy and Energy Information Administration. The US EPA Clean Power Plan aims to achieve a 32% reduction from 2005 levels by 2030 and uses a business as usual case with updated energy demand, natural gas prices, and renewable and energy efficiency assumptions.

"An Analysis of Costs and Health Co-benefits for a US Power Plant Carbon Standard," Jonathan Buonocore, Kathleen F. Lambert, Dallas Burtraw, Samantha Sekar, Charles T. Driscoll, PLOS ONE, online June 7, 2016, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0156308.

Visit http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0156308 to access the study, including maps of benefits and costs.

Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonpartisan organization, based in Washington, DC, that conducts rigorous economic research and analysis to improve environmental and natural resource policy.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health brings together dedicated experts from many disciplines to educate new generations of global health leaders and produce powerful ideas that improve the lives and health of people everywhere. As a community of leading scientists, educators, and students, we work together to take innovative ideas from the laboratory to people’s lives—not only making scientific breakthroughs, but also working to change individual behaviors, public policies, and health care practices. Each year, more than 400 faculty members at Harvard Chan School teach 1,000-plus full-time students from around the world and train thousands more through online and executive education courses. Founded in 1913 as the Harvard-MIT School of Health Officers, the School is recognized as America’s oldest professional training program in public health.

Harvard Forest is a department of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) of Harvard University. It was established in 1907 as Harvard’s outdoor laboratory and classroom. The mission of the Harvard Forest is to develop and implement interdisciplinary research and education programs investigating the ways in which physical, biological and human systems interact to change our earth.

Syracuse University is a private research university dedicated to advancing knowledge and promoting student success through teaching excellence, scholarship, and interdisciplinary research.

Science Policy Exchange is a consortium of six environmental research institutions dedicated to synthesizing and communicating science for decision making.