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Report projects major health, air quality benefits from US clean power standard

A nationwide clean power standard requiring 80% of U.S. electricity to come from carbon dioxide-free sources by 2030 would save hundreds of thousands of lives and sharply improve air quality while combatting climate change, according to a new study released July 12.

The analysis, which the authors claimed was the first to map the air quality and related health benefits for an 80%-by-2030 U.S. clean electricity standard, could underpin the Biden administration's efforts to enact the policy through Congress.

"The estimated net benefits of our illustrative 80x30 [clean electricity standard, or CES] are large, widespread, and far outweigh the costs," concluded a report from the Clean Energy Futures project, an independent collaboration with researchers from Syracuse University; Harvard T.H. Chan Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment; Georgia Institute of Technology; and Resources for the Future.

Using "conservative assumptions," the study estimated an 80%-by-2030 CES would generate $637 billion in climate-related benefits by 2050. The estimated benefits were calculated using a constant real social cost of carbon of $50 per metric ton in 2019 dollars and a 5% discount rate.

Those benefits would far outweigh projected costs of $342 billion, which includes expenses related to building new capital projects, retrofitting existing power plants and operating energy facilities.

The report also anticipates "immediate, substantial, and widespread" health benefits from the CES. The policy would save an estimated 317,500 lives between 2020 and 2050 from reduced exposure to fine particulate matter and ozone and avoid 9,200 premature deaths in 2030, the study said.

Related air quality improvements would be spread out across every state and all racial and ethnic groups, generating about $1.13 trillion in health savings through 2050, according to the report. The top 10 states for avoided premature deaths in 2030 are Ohio (771), Texas (737), Pennsylvania (582), Illinois (529), Florida (463), North Carolina (453), Indiana (441), Tennessee (424), Michigan (396) and Georgia (377).

Other recent studies have touted the benefits of an 80%-by-2030 CES. Energy Innovation Policy & Technology LLC, a San Francisco-based research group, analyzed seven recent reports on a potential CES and found that several concluded wholesale power prices would decline by 2030 under such a policy while clean energy jobs and investment would surge.

But other analyses have estimated steeper costs for decarbonizing the grid. Center-right think tank American Action Forum said eliminating U.S. power sector carbon emissions by 2035 through a CES would cost about $2 trillion in capital investment and annual operations and maintenance expenses.

Moreover, one libertarian think tank said the July 12 report may sharply overestimate potential benefits from a CES. Marlo Lewis, a senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said the federal government's social cost of carbon is "is too speculative and easily manipulated for partisan ends to guide policy decisions with hundred-billion-dollar price tags."

U.S. President Joe Biden set a goal to decarbonize the power sector by 2035, with an interim goal to achieve 80% clean power by 2030. Given opposition from many Republican lawmakers to sweeping climate policies, Biden and CES proponents on Capitol Hill are exploring using the budget reconciliation process to enact a clean power standard.

Reconciliation legislation can pass both chambers of Congress with support from only a simple majority of lawmakers. Although the process is limited to measures that affect the federal budget, CES backers say a clean power standard could be structured to satisfy reconciliation requirements, including by using federal financial investments, incentives or penalties to achieve a carbon-free electricity system by a specific date. In addition, an 80%-by-2030 target would fit into the reconciliation process's 10-year limit for raising federal deficits.