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CMU study: Alternative energy should thrive in Pa.

Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Wind turbines work to produce energy on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, at the Somerset Wind Farm near Somerset.

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Solar panels under Pittsburgh's often-cloudy skies can offer more overall benefits than they would under the blazing sun of Arizona, and a wind farm in West Virginia can deliver more health benefits than turbines on the gusty Great Plains do.

That's according to a Carnegie Mellon University study, which concluded that in order to achieve the greatest gains from renewable energy sources, officials should not focus on the locations that have the greatest potential for capacity, but places where the highest number of people would benefit by offsetting the most pollutants.

“In many places in California or Arizona, the same solar panel will generate much more electricity than in Pennsylvania, given that the solar resource is much better at those locations. However, one of the goals of renewables is also to avoid emissions of air pollutants and their consequences,” said Ines Lima Azevedo, an assistant professor at CMU's Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making.

“What makes solar benefits in Pittsburgh larger than in other locations is that we would be mostly displacing electricity generated by coal, which has a large amount of air pollutant emissions — and associated health and environmental consequences.”

The study, published in the science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year, put a price tag on the social benefits of emission reductions and found, for example, that a wind turbine in West Virginia would avoid $230 in health and environmental damages per kilowatt-hour per year, displacing twice as much carbon dioxide and seven times as much health damage as the same turbine in California. Solar and wind energy sources emit less carbon dioxide and air pollution than burning fossil fuels for electricity.

“If the main goal of renewables is to decrease the health, environmental and climate-change problems associated with fossil-fueled electricity generation, it indeed makes sense to increase renewables and other sustainable strategies and energy efficiency in Pittsburgh — and more broadly in Pennsylvania,” Azevedo said.

The researchers suggested that Congress take regional variations into account when structuring tax benefits for clean energy. They argued that the incentives should be available at least until costs are competitive with conventional energy generation.

“The level of these incentives should be set at least at the level that corresponds to the environmental and health consequences that they avoid when compared to the alternatives,” Azevedo said.

In Pennsylvania, more than two dozen energy companies have built 717 wind turbines since 2000, including 256 in 2012 alone, and installed numerous solar panels, according to PennFuture, an environmental advocacy group. Investment in renewable energy jumped in 2004 when lawmakers passed the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act, requiring a percentage of the state's energy production to come from alternative sources.

Evan Enders, a project coordinator for PennFuture's Energy Center, said the CMU study was “very eye-opening,” but investors' interest in Pennsylvania has waned since nearby states began requiring alternative energy sources.

“If lawmakers are serious about the overall energy mix and reducing carbon emissions, then they should focus money in Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, southern Ohio and regions where that investment is going to offset pollution,” he said.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927.

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