Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

by James A. Bacon

I’m so confused. We’ve been hearing for years that air pollution from fossil fuel plants disproportionately impacts minorities. Take, for example, a 2018 Environmental Protection Agency study which found that African-Americans faced a 54% higher health burden from particulate air emissions like soot compared to the overall population. Systemic racism was the culprit. Numerous other studies have reached similar conclusions.

To address the systemic racism embedded in the U.S. energy system, greenies have touted the generation of electricity from non-polluting energy sources such as wind and solar. (Let’s set aside the fact that air pollution is displaced in many cases to unregulated mines in Africa, not known for their health and safety conditions, which produce the materials used in wind turbines and solar cells.)

Now comes a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which finds that the health benefits of wind power could quadruple by dialing down production from the most polluting fossil-fuel-based power plants when wind is available. But the study, published in Science Advances, had a disturbing caveat: only 30% of the benefits would reach disadvantaged communities.

“We found that prioritizing health is a great way to maximize benefits in a widespread way across the U.S., which is a very positive thing. But it suggests it’s not going to address disparities,” says MIT co-author Noelle Selin.

An MIT publication explains how the conclusions were reached:

The team then used a sophisticated atmospheric chemistry model to simulate the wind patterns and chemical transport of emissions across the country, and determined where and at what concentrations the emissions generated fine particulates and ozone — two pollutants that are known to damage air quality and human health. Finally, the researchers mapped the general demographic populations across the country, based on U.S. census data, and applied a standard epidemiological approach to calculate a population’s health cost as a result of their pollution exposure.

This analysis revealed that, in the year 2014, a general cost-saving approach to displacing fossil-fuel-based energy in times of wind energy resulted in $2 billion in health benefits, or savings, across the country. A smaller share of these benefits went to disadvantaged populations, such as communities of color and low-income communities, though this disparity varied by state.

In sum, generating pollution from fossil fuels creates disproportionately large negative impacts on minorities but cutting pollution from fossil fuels disproportionately yields disproportionately small benefits to minorities.

This is what I call damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t racism. No matter what you do, it’s racist.

It is doubtful that anyone in Virginia will give much credence to the MIT study because it will undercut the narrative that fossil fuels are racist and, thus, undermine the social-justice justification for Dominion’s offshore wind project and a zero-carbon electric grid. But I could be wrong. I’ll be keeping an eye on The Washington Post, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Virginian-Pilot and the Virginia Mercury to see if they acknowledge how minorities are short-changed by wind power.