UW Jackson School researcher: Alternative energy is key to long-term health

April 16, 2018

Access to reliable electricity is critical to public health, argues UW geoscientist Scott Montgomery. And the best way to assure both is to pursue renewable energy.

Halting the spread of disease involves a combination of health care and societal practices — from access to doctors and vaccines to clean water and adequate resources.

Many of those solutions rely on electricity and transport fuels, whether for refrigeration, diagnosis and treatment, or distribution. But with two of the major energy sources the world relies on now — coal and oil in the form of diesel fuel — global health stands little chance of major improvement, says a University of Washington researcher.

In a four-part series that launched April 6 in Global Policy Journal, Scott Montgomery, a geoscientist and affiliate in the UW’s Jackson School of International Studies, lays out the case for alternative energy within the context of better health. The diseases caused or worsened by air pollution and unsafe drinking water go hand in hand with rapidly growing economies around the world, Montgomery argues. But countries have an opportunity to choose a healthier future.

“Energy is the key to many things dealing with public health, and electricity is the most fundamental,” Montgomery said. “Discussions about this tend to focus on the developing world, but it’s not just happening ‘over there.’ These issues are happening everywhere; it’s just that in some places, it happens a lot more.”

Montgomery focuses the first part of his series on air pollution, the particulate matter generated mostly by coal and diesel, but also by wood, charcoal and animal dung. The latter fuels, in the developing world, tend to result from open-fire cooking. Fine particulates, which are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, are easily inhaled and absorbed into the bloodstream. Pollution from open-fire sources affects as many as 3 billion people, Montgomery said, disproportionately harming people who traditionally spend more time near the stove: women, children and the elderly.

Montgomery cites a 2016 World Health Organization report finding that nearly one in four deaths globally are due to “unhealthy environments,” namely, contaminated soil, unclean water and polluted air. Along with related WHO data concerning the cities with the most polluted air, he explains how the abundance and affordability of coal perpetuates high rates of conditions such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and chronic respiratory disease. Globally, the existing technology in coal-fired plants includes effective controls on most forms of pollution, including particulate matter. But such controls add significant cost and, despite regulatory demands, are not always used, even when installed. Such has been a problem in China, for example, whose coal consumption is as large as the rest of the world combined. Particulate matter also is produced by atmospheric reactions with sulfur dioxide, whose controls are not implemented in many cases.

Diesel is just as pervasive and hazardous as coal, but is often overlooked in the energy debate, particularly regarding health impacts in developing countries, the researcher said. It is more common than gasoline, and fuels most heavy industrial and military vehicles around the world. It also contributes to fine particulate matter outdoors, where worldwide deaths attributed to air pollution rose by some 700,000 between 1990 and 2015.

Montgomery said that in the immediate term, due to economic development and resource availability, the volume and type of energy consumption is unlikely to change. The task ahead, he argues, is to prepare to overhaul the sources of electricity and to re-evaluate what choices might be made for the long-term — a daunting challenge in this economic and regulatory climate.

“These infrastructure problems have been known, but they tend to not be emphasized because people view them as being so fraught and difficult. Governments need to be working well, and there needs to be private investment,” he said. “At the same time, some of the focus on renewable energy has been on getting technologies like wind and solar to developing countries, but those technologies just can’t deliver the amount of power that’s needed.”

Temporary, “frontier fixes” —  a generator for a makeshift hospital here, a new well for a community there —  certainly help for now, Montgomery said. In the long term, however, there needs to be a commitment to building the capacity for a variety of energy sources, and to encouraging countries to pursue their own fuel and health solutions. Bangladesh, for example, has made much progress against water-borne illnesses through latrine construction and a related outreach campaign. Yet such improvements will need to be secured with actual water treatment, sewage systems and a piped water supply in order to be sustainable.

This can’t be done via external aid alone. “The attempts to just go in and build things for people have failed. You can’t just give things to people and walk away,” Montgomery said. “Private investment can work, if the people are involved in it at many levels, including leadership. This is especially true when it comes to energy choices.”

Increasing the use of alternative energy is one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Those alternatives —   geothermal, nuclear, natural gas, solar and wind —  will be addressed later in the series as means of achieving energy security and global health.

“You need a range of different sources to create a truly modern and healthy electricity supply system,” Montgomery said. “The world is now in the midst of an epochal transition in energy choices, trying to build a much healthier future. This comes at a crucial time for many nations, who are now breaking free or beginning to break free of longtime poverty and high levels of disease. It is essential, I think, to draw attention to the growing awareness of how immensely important energy choices are to global health in this era of massive change.”

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For more information, contact Montgomery at 206-897-1611 or scottlm@uw.edu.

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