Analyzing electrification’s health benefits
A new report by the American Lung Association (ALA), titled “The Road to Clean Air,” brings into stark relief how a nationwide transition to electric vehicles could dramatically improve public health and climate change efforts in the United States. Our experts in transportation, energy, and electrification collaborated with the ALA on a comprehensive study of what such an ambitious transition could mean for the future.
Of all the sources of harmful air pollution in the United States of America, the transportation sector is one of the top offenders. From school buses to passenger vehicles to freight trucks, combustion-powered transportation can lead to numerous (and costly) public health risks, including asthma, lung cancer, and cardiovascular harm.
What if an aggressive push for electrifying the nation’s transportation system were possible? What would the benefits of moving toward zero-emission transportation solutions be—to the economic value of people’s health and to the environment—by 2050? The ALA set out to provide a comprehensive, methodologically sound study to explore possible answers to these questions on a national scale, thereby laying the groundwork for more state and local approaches. In doing so, the ALA needed our experience with electric power grids and vehicle fleets.
We started by building out an electrification plan for the nation’s vehicle fleet, including both passenger vehicles and heavy-duty vehicles (e.g., freight trucks, buses, heavy-duty trucks, airport shuttles). We broke these vehicles down into categories based on their use and suitability for electrification, then built a scenario for deploying electric vehicles across the nation.
With an electrification scenario in place, we modeled emissions changes over time from both the nation’s vehicles and the “upstream” activities associated with powering the vehicles (as the substitution of internal combustion-powered vehicles with electric-powered vehicles evolves). We examined the effects of the vehicle electrification scenario on emissions over time. We then used COBRA—an analytical tool from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—to predict the exposure to those emissions at the county-level. We calculated changes in air quality, followed by changes in public health outcomes for people breathing this cleaner air.
The ALA’s concluding report offered an insightful analysis of the benefits of zero-emission transportation solutions by 2050. Were the ALA’s transportation scenario to become a reality, it would result in avoiding hundreds of thousands of tons of air pollution, more than a billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions, preventing thousands of premature deaths, and avoiding tens of billions of dollars in healthcare costs associated with air pollution nationally per year. These U.S.-based reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could also lead to preventing hundreds of billions of dollars in climate change-related damages worldwide.