Spokane Journal of Business

Renewable energy is likely to benefit U.S. workers' health

Shift to wind, solar power should benefit 700,000, college researchers say

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Expansion of renewable energy should appreciably improve the health status of the 700,000 U.S. workers employed in the energy sector, suggests a commentary by Medical College of Wisconsin researchers, in Milwaukee. Their review was published in an August issue of JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Dr. Steven Sumner, who completed the work while still a medical student, and Dr. Peter Layde, professor of population health and co-director of the Injury Research Center at the Medical College, examined occupational health risks to workers in renewable-energy industries compared with workers in fossil-fuel industries. Risk of workplace injury and death among energy workers is a hidden cost of energy production, known as an externality of energy. Externalities of energy production include a host of problems, from damage to the general environment and adverse effects on human health caused by pollution to injury and death among workers in the energy sector.

Sumner, currently an internal medicine resident at Duke University, and Layde examined the human health risks associated with traditional fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, relative to risks associated with renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, and biomass. Wind and solar energy appeared to offer less risk of workplace injury and death than traditional fossil-fuel industries, as the dangerous energy extraction phase is minimized or eliminated in wind or solar energy production. Biomass, comprised of biofuels, organic waste, and wood-derived fuels, currently accounts for more than half of U.S. energy renewable consumption and doesn't appear to offer a significant safety benefit to U.S. workers relative to fossil fuels.

"The energy sector remains one of the most dangerous industries for U.S. workers. A transition to renewable-energy generation utilizing sources such as wind and solar could potentially eliminate 1,300 worker deaths over the coming decade," Sumner says.

Layde says, "Previous research on the health effects of a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy has focused on the environmental benefits of renewable energy on air quality and global warming. The benefits of reduced workplace injury and fatality have not been sufficiently emphasized in the debate to move to renewable energies. This will be an added benefit to U.S. energy workers with the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009."

The researchers reviewed the occupational cost of energy production in the traditional and renewable energy industries and noted that while energy derived from fossil fuel has been priced lower historically than energy from renewable sources, the additional hidden costs, or externalities of energy, especially adverse effects on human health, often haven't been taken into account.

Mining, which includes coal, gas, and oil extraction from underground or underwater stores, is the second most hazardous occupation in the U.S. with 27.5 deaths per 100,000, compared with the average annual fatality rate of 3.4 deaths for all U.S. industries. Only agriculture is more dangerous, with 28.7 deaths per 100,000. Additionally, fossil-fuel workers risk unintended injuries from extraction, and are exposed to hazardous particles, gases, and radiation.

Renewable energies that eliminate the full extraction phase pose far less hazard, though a one-time extraction of raw materials is required to manufacture wind turbines and photovoltaic modules for wind and solar energy, respectively. Biomass, on the other hand, which includes growing corn for ethanol production, is unlikely to offer a reduction in extraction-related occupational fatalities, the researchers found.

The combustion required to generate fossil fuel not only leads to greenhouse gases and respiratory pollutants, but includes risk of catastrophic explosions. This also holds true for biomass energy generation. In developed countries, fossil fuels are associated with more accident-related fatalities per unit of energy generated than either nuclear or hydroelectric power.

With wind and solar power, the possibility of a large unintentional catastrophe is limited.

The study was supported partially by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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