Green Fatigue

Arizona Among "Worst Locations for Solar" If Goal Is Better Air Quality, Study Says

Arizona, New Mexico, and California are among the worst places in the country to subsidize solar and wind projects if better air quality is the goal, a new study says.

The best bang for the buck in terms of improving public health, according to Carnegie Mellon University researchers, could be had by putting more solar panels and wind farms in the Midwest and Eastern states, where they'll displace power from dirty coal plants.

See also:
Solar Eclipsed: Why the Sun Won't Power Phoenix Despite an Industry Boom

The researchers' conclusions were published this week in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science journal. The authors are Kyle Siler-Evans, Ines Lima Azevedo, M. Granger Morgan, and Jay Apt of the Pittsburgh university's Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making.

"Although the Southwest has the greatest solar resource, a solar panel in New Jersey displaces significantly more sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter than a panel in Arizona, resulting in 15 times more health and environmental benefits," the paper's abstract states. "A wind turbine in West Virginia displaces twice as much carbon dioxide as the same turbine in California."

At peak-demand times, utilities in Arizona are more likely to draw extra juice from natural-gas-powered plants than coal-fired plants, Siler-Evans tells New Times. When solar or wind systems are added to the mix, they're usually displacing electricity that came from the burning of natural gas. That's not the case in many places around the United States that are more likely to pull in their coal-generated electric resources in times of maximum need.

Another reason for the effect seen in the study, he says, is that emissions from coal plants in Arizona are further away from population centers than their eastern counterparts.

"Health in Arizona is not as affected," he says. Solar panels in New Jersey, however, produced "huge benefits" because they displace electricity from coal plants that spew harmful emissions toward densely populated areas like New York City.

The benefits of displacing coal emissions are apparently well worth the lower electricity production of building solar or wind projects in less sunny or windy locations. From the study:

The average solar panel in Nebraska displaces 20 percent more CO2 than a panel in Arizona, although energy output from the Nebraska panel is 20 percent less. Solar panels in Indiana, Ohio, or West Virginia achieve significant health and environmental benefits by displacing coal-fired generators. Despite a poor solar resource, a 1-kW PV panel in Ohio provides $105 in health and environmental benefits per year ($75/MWh) -- 15 times more than the same panel in Arizona. Remarkably, if the goal is to improve air quality and human health, Arizona and New Mexico are among the worst locations for solar.

We as Arizona residents are naturally inclined to care more about our own health, and not so much about how localized pollution harms some silly "Tri-State Area" back east. Fortunately for us, the federal incentive for installed solar systems is 30 percent, no matter where they go.

On the other hand, it's not that fortunate, because solar avoids only a fraction of the pollution gushing from Arizona coal plants, which are expected to provide a significant amount of the state's electricity needs for many years to come. For now, as our December article on the weaknesses of solar power covered, the part-time energy from solar power can't effectively replace fossil-fuel or nuclear.

The real question is whether the subsidies for solar and wind power are worth the money. We don't need those technologies for power -- it's a choice being made based on the presumed health benefits. The Carnegie Mellon study shows that, as usual, the feds are spending money where it will do the least good.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.