Map of premature deaths avoided with a strong carbon standard,
Premature deaths avoided by power plant carbon standards

Clean Air and Health Co-Benefits of US Power Plant Carbon Standards


Credit: Charles Driscoll, Syracuse University


Power plants are the nation’s single largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, which contribute to climate change. They also release other pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter -- precursors to smog and soot that harm human health. In a 2015 study published in Nature Climate Change, an SPE research team investigated the added health benefits of climate policies that are linked to reductions in these other air pollutants. The team analyzed and mapped the air quality and related health benefits for the entire continental U.S. under three policy options for implementing power plant carbon standards:

  • The first policy option is limited to inside the fenceline measures such as power plant heat rate improvements and co-firing with alternative fuels. This option results in a slight deterioration of air quality and adverse health effects. This is due to emissions rebound caused by increased generation at fossil fuel fired power plants with increased operating efficiency.
  • The second policy option combines power plant heat rate improvements with substantial increases in renewable energy generation and end-user energy efficiency measures. This option results in the largest air quality and health benefits.
  •  The third policy option mimics a national carbon tax. In this scenario, the tax combined with market forces drive the power sector to reduce carbon dioxide emissions through technologies like carbon capture and storage. This policy option achieves the deepest cuts in carbon emissions, but does not produce the largest health benefits because this option lacks new end-user energy efficiency.

Our results show that 3,500 premature deaths, 1,000 heart attacks and 220 hospitalizations can be prevented each year in the U.S. under the second option for power plant carbon standards (based on central measures). The weaker alternatives provide fewer health benefits and may even have detrimental effects.

All states and all types of communities see improved air quality under the top policy option. Residents of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas stand to gain the greatest health gains with 230 to 330 estimated premature deaths prevented each year in those states.