Renewable energy development: what impact on air quality?

In the European Union, the share of renewable energies in the energy mix has increased significantly in the last few years, rising from only 9.1% in 2005 to 17.0% in 2016. This development has had an impact on the emission of pollutants into the atmosphere. Ineris, in the context of its work for the European Environment Agency’s European Topic Centre on Air Pollution, Transport, Noise and Industrial Pollution, conducted a study with the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU) to estimate the impacts of the development of renewable energies on air quality and on human health.

Although it is clear that air quality has improved overall in the last 20 years, the growth in the share of renewable energy in the energy mix of European countries since 2005 has in fact had a negative impact on air quality. The study conducted by Ineris and NILU, based on simulations produced using the Chimere air quality model, estimates that this deterioration translated into around 9,200 additional premature deaths in 2016 compared to 2005.

This observation can mainly be attributed to the development of wood heating, which has alone contributed to an increase in particle emissions, causing 10,700 premature deaths.  
On the other hand, the development of other renewable energies (wind, solar, geothermal, etc.) has indeed led to improvements in air quality, thus reducing the mortality due to pollution by 1,500 deaths per year.

Some countries have succeeded in improving air quality more significantly by prioritising other renewable energies over wood heating (notably Portugal, with mean decreases in PM2.5 concentrations of around 0.5 µg/m3).

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