Air Quality & Wind Energy

According to the American Lung Association, “Climate, energy, and clean air are inexorably linked. Solutions that lead to cleaner air must be included in any approach to cleaner, more efficient energy use and reductions in global warming.”

In October 2009, the National Academy of Sciences issued an important study that examines the hidden costs of energy to society. Such hidden costs, often called “externalities,” include lung damage, asthma, and premature deaths from air pollution; birth defects from mercury fallout; and damage to buildings, timber harvests, and ecosystem services from acid rain. While very real, they are not reflected, or “internalized,” in market prices. In effect, they are a hidden subsidy for polluting energy sources.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, one of the obvious benefits of wind energy is that the production of electricity from this source involves zero direct emissions of air pollutants. In contrast, fossil fuel-fired electric generation from coal, oil, or natural gas results in substantial direct emissions of numerous air pollutants that have adverse impacts on public health and the environment.

Electric generation from fossil fuel-fired power plants is a leading source of air emissions that harm human health and contribute to global climate change – resulting in 39% of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, 22% of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, 69% of sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions, and 40% of mercury emissions in the United States. Other pollutants include volatile organic compounds (e.g., benzene, dioxins) and heavy metals (e.g., arsenic, lead).

Health experts have documented that pollutants from fossil-fueled power plants, particularly coal plants, result in a wide range of serious health effects. These adverse health effects include lung cancer and other respiratory diseases (e.g., asthma), other carcinogenic effects, neurotoxic effects, and elevation of heart disease risks.

Wind energy generation results in reductions in air emissions because of the way the electric power system works. Wind energy is a preferred power source on an economic basis because the operating costs to run the turbines are very low and there are no fuel costs. Thus, when the wind turbines produce power, this power source will displace generation of fossil-fueled plants, which have higher operating and fuel costs.

The types of fossil fuel-fired power units that will be displaced by wind generation vary significantly among states and regions. Some states and regions rely on coal plants for a majority of their generation (e.g., West Virginia), whereas other regions and states rely heavily on natural gas-fired units (e.g., most of New England). The displaced emissions of CO2, NOx, SO2, and mercury generally will be greater in areas with large amounts of coal-fired generation and lower in areas where natural gas is the dominant fuel.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, many states and localities are exploring or implementing clean energy policies to achieve reductions in greenhouse gases and criteria air pollutants, such as particulate matter, ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, and nitrogen oxides. While greenhouse gases have a global effect, contribute to climate change, and can last more than 100 years, criteria air pollutants have a local to regional effect on air quality and human health and can dissipate in hours or days. Clean energy measures that reduce criteria air pollutants, therefore, can result in almost immediate local improvements in air quality and human health.


More Information

American Lung Association. State of the Air 2013

Learn more about particle pollution. Download the free app and check the grade for your air by entering your Zip code.

National Academy of Sciences. (2009). Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use.

The report defines and evaluates key external costs and benefits that are associated with the production, distribution, and use of energy but are not reflected in market prices.

National Parks Conservation Association. (2009). An Agenda for Clean Air: Protect the Air We Breathe

U.S. Department of Energy. (2005). Improving Regional Air Quality with Wind Energy (PDF 400 KB)

This fact sheet provides an overview of how electricity generated from zero-emission wind energy can help states and municipalities improve air quality, achieve attainment of Clean Air Act standards, and reduce pollution control costs for taxpayers.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Benefits and Costs of the Clean Air Act

Congress requires the EPA to conduct periodic, scientifically reviewed studies to assess the benefits and the costs of the Clean Air Act. Since this requirement was established, EPA has conducted three comprehensive studies on the benefits and costs of the Clean Air Act, which are available at this site.