Potential Air Quality Benefits from Increased Solar Photovoltaic Electricity Generation in the Eastern United States

Paul Denholm, Gregory Brinkman, David Abel, Tracey Holoway, Monica Harkey, Arber Rrushaj, Philip Duran, Mark Janssen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus Citations


We evaluate how fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and precursor emissions could be reduced if 17% of electricity generation was replaced with solar photovoltaics (PV) in the Eastern United States. Electricity generation is simulated using GridView, then used to scale electricity-sector emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOX) from an existing gridded inventory of air emissions. This approach offers a novel method to leverage advanced electricity simulations with state-of-the-art emissions inventories, without necessitating recalculation of emissions for each facility. The baseline and perturbed emissions are input to the Community Multiscale Air Quality Model (CMAQ version 4.7.1) for a full accounting of time- and space-varying air quality changes associated with the 17% PV scenario. These results offer a high-value opportunity to evaluate the reduced-form AVoided Emissions and geneRation Tool (AVERT), while using AVERT to test the sensitivity of results to changing base-years and levels of solar integration. We find that average NOX and SO2 emissions across the region decrease 20% and 15%, respectively. PM2.5 concentrations decreased on average 4.7% across the Eastern U.S., with nitrate (NO3) PM2.5 decreasing 3.7% and sulfate (SO42−) PM2.5 decreasing 9.1%. In the five largest cities in the region, we find that the most polluted days show the most significant PM2.5 decrease under the 17% PV generation scenario, and that the greatest benefits are accrued to cities in or near the Ohio River Valley. We find summer health benefits from reduced PM2.5 exposure estimated as 1424 avoided premature deaths (95% Confidence Interval (CI): 284 deaths, 2 732 deaths) or a health savings of $13.1 billion (95% CI: $0.6 billion, $43.9 billion) These results highlight the potential for renewable energy as a tool for air quality managers to support current and future health-based air quality regulations.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)65-74
Number of pages10
JournalAtmospheric Environment
StatePublished - 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 Elsevier Ltd

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-6A20-66926


  • Air quality
  • AVoided Emissions and geneRation Tool (AVERT)
  • Co-benefits
  • Community Multiscale Air Quality Model (CMAQ)
  • Electricity
  • Environmental Benefits Mapping and Analysis Program (BenMAP)
  • GridView
  • Particulate matter
  • PM
  • Public health
  • Renewable energy
  • Solar energy


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