For years, solar-energy advocates have complained that critics of the technology and its higher costs ignore the environmental and health benefits the arrays produce by replacing “dirty” power from more traditional generating units.
Now, a recent study backs that up, purporting to show that some states — particularly in the Mid-Atlantic region, including New Jersey — reap far more benefits from solar-linked reductions in air pollution generated by conventional fossil fuel power plant, even though the solar panels in the East produce far less electricity than in sunbaked states like Arizona.
The study said increased use of solar energy in the Mid-Atlantic states would sharply reduce unhealthy emissions, including sulfur dioxide, which contributes to acid rain; nitrogen oxides, which help create smog during summer months; and fine particulate matter. or soot, which the federal Environmental Protection Agency says leads to tens of thousands of premature deaths each year nationwide. The cleaner renewable technologies also reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which contribute to global climate change, according to the study.
“We find that a solar panel in New Jersey displaces significantly more criteria pollutants (ones that are regulated under the federal Clean Air Act) than a panel in Arizona, resulting in 15 times more health and environmental benefits, according to a study published in June by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.
New Jersey has never met the federal health quality for ground-level ozone, or smog, which can cause respiratory problems, especially in the young and the elderly. The state only this year petitioned the federal government to have it designated for attainment to comply with fine particulate matter, or soot, health standards. Power plants are a source of emissions for both pollutants, although transportation also contributes to the problems.
The study acknowledges the nation lacks a comprehensive policy that factors social damages into the cost of producing electricity, an omission that puts renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind energy at a competitive disadvantage with more traditional fossil-fuel plants. Wind power offers similar health and environmental benefits, depending upon location, the study said.
“In the absence of more comprehensive policies, it is likely that direct subsidies for renewable will remain an important policy instrument,’’ the study said.
In New Jersey, those subsidies helped the state trail only California in the number of solar installations, according to some rankings.
Developing solar energy also comes with a cost, with more than $5 billion of subsidies from gas and electric customers over the past decade. With aggressive goals for increasing how much solar electricity is consumed by businesses and residents in New Jersey, those costs are expected to mount in coming years.
The state also is trying to promote development of offshore wind farms off the New Jersey coast, but those efforts have stalled over the inability to create a funding mechanism that would supply developers with enough ratepayers’ subsidies to make the projects economically viable.
Solar-energy advocates viewed the study as helping to build the case for more solar-energy systems in New Jersey.
“Is it impacting ratepayers? Sure it is,’’ said Jamie Hahn, managing director of Solis Partners, a firm that specializes in developing solar-energy systems for businesses. “When you start factoring other benefits, it’s good to educate the public. It’s always been a benefit that has not been quantified.’’
Hahn argued the marketplace does not currently reflect the external costs society pays for using fossil fuel plants, a position reflected in the study. If those costs are reflected in comparisons between renewable energy technologies, such as solar and wind energy, “then you are starting to play on a level playing field,’’ he said.