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How Does Renewable Energy Impact Air Pollution?

It's impossible to deny the impacts non-renewable energy sources have on climate change. There's even a 99.9% consensus among climate experts that human activity significantly contributes to global warming. Dirty fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas have led to widespread air pollution, even in remote corners of the Earth where few would expect it to be.
How Does Renewable Energy Impact Air Pollution?

Fortunately, investments in renewable energy technologies are currently counteracting the severe environmental implications. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, renewables made up 24% of the total electricity generation in the United States during the first half of 2022.

Although there's still a way to go, the increase in renewable energy generation paves the way for the U.S. to meet its climate targets and help improve air quality. Here are five ways renewable energy positively impacts air pollution and protects human health.

1. Reduces Particulate Matter

Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) — inhalable air particles measuring 2.5 micrometers in diameter — poses the most critical threat to global health. Power plants and the transportation and industrial sectors are the most predominant sources of PM2.5, emitting sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere.

Humans are highly susceptible to respiratory and cardiovascular issues when exposed to PM2.5. However, outdoor air isn't the only place they risk exposure. Indoor air also contains ample amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — a harmful type of PM2.5 — from standard household products and older appliances. 

Transitioning to solar and wind power can limit PM2.5 almost immediately. Meanwhile, other renewables like geothermal and biomass emit some but way less particulate matter than dirty fuels.

2. Decreases Allergens

Mounting evidence suggests air pollution increases allergies, which could be serious for those with chronic respiratory diseases and asthma. Findings even show the U.S. pollen season increased by 11 to 27 days between 1995 and 2011.

In China — where air pollution has been a problem for decades — there's a 4.2% prevalence of asthma among the population. Allergic rhinitis now stands at 5.33% and is the top allergic condition in the country.

Carbon pollutants from fossil fuels and warmer temperatures extend growing seasons and cause plants to produce extra pollen — another excellent reason for a renewable energy revolution. Renewables can reverse the trend of longer pollen seasons, which would significantly improve air quality.

3. Prevents Stagnation Events

The hottest days of summer are conducive to air pollution. Also known as stagnation events, these extreme weather patterns trap pollutants at lower atmospheric levels for a prolonged duration.

According to a Climate Central study, 83% of U.S. cities have had a six-day increase in stagnant events annually since 1973. Perhaps even more alarming, the World Health Organization found in 2011 long-term exposure to stagnant pollutants caused 200,00 and 400,000 premature respiratory and cardiovascular deaths per year in Europe.

Scientists expect stagnation to worsen as climate change induces more extreme summer temperatures. However, there's a chance renewable energy can prevent stagnation days by reducing ozone and air pollutants.

4. Limits Ozone Levels

The fossil fuel industry isn't particularly well-known for controlling air pollution. Many coal plants still don’t use wet scrubbers, which have proven very effective in removing PM2.5. Unfortunately, the nitrogen oxide emissions produced by these plants are the main component of rising ozone levels.

Researchers monitor ozone to determine an area's air quality. A drop can cause severe health implications, such as breathing difficulties, asthma attacks, respiratory and cardiovascular problems and pulmonary inflammation — all of which could require medical attention. Renewable energies can help limit ozone and reduce nitrogen oxide emissions to improve air quality.

5. Increases Fog and Precipitation

Scientists predict fog and precipitation are declining in coastal regions due to global warming — these elements are essential for trapping and removing PM2.5 from the air. As temperatures have warmed throughout the decades, a decline in moisture has lowered air quality.

For example, San Francisco has seen a 34.5% decrease in fog — about three to four hours less daily — which increases its vulnerability to drier air, more wildfires and poor ecological health. Coastal redwoods also show signs of distress from less fog, as witnessed by reduced land coverage and smaller redwood species die-offs. Therefore, renewable energy can prevent a decline in condensation and moisture for clearer, cleaner air.

Renewable Energy Improves the Air We Breathe

Short and long-term exposure to air pollution is dangerous for the environment and human health. Renewable energy is humanity’s best shot at improving air quality and reducing dirty fossil fuels' negative climate change impacts.

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