Thousands of Americans die prematurely from air pollution-related diseases associated with burning coal, and a new study from Michigan Technological University says transitioning to solar power would save more than 50,000 American lives each year.
Joshua Pearce, electrical engineering professor and the report's lead author, said in addition to being a public health issue, investing in solar would be profitable as well.
"You also produce electricity that has value," Pearce said. "And so, let's say that we did this on a truly distributed case, and everybody just put up solar on their rooftop - so they were offsetting residential electricity. The American public would make $2 million for every life they saved."
He acknowledged there would be sizable up-front costs from replacing the coal energy infrastructure with solar - it's been estimated at $1.5 trillion. But Pearce said there is a good economic case to be made.
U.S. coal production has seen an uptick since President Trump began eliminating environmental regulations on the industry.
Pearce's team tapped geographic data to determine the number of deaths due to coal-powered plants, then scoured national data for regional electricity prices and ultimately found that switching to solar could turn a big profit for every life saved.
He argued that switching to solar should be a no-brainer and offered as an example a hypothetical scenario in which terrorists killed 50,000 people and said they were going to do it again next year. He said Americans would be outraged.
"But instead, if you were part of an industry that we knew was going to kill 50,000 Americans next year - and your motive was simply to make money - we completely let it go," Pearce said; "even though we know it's a fact that 50,000 Americans lose their lives."
The World Health Organization says millions die across the globe each year due to air pollution, which is the largest contributor to non-communicable disease such as stroke, cancers, chronic respiratory illnesses and heart disease.