NREL's air quality research investigates the impact of air quality on public health, environmental justice, and renewable energy generation.
Improving Public Health and Sustainability by Addressing Air Quality Problems
Outdoor air pollution contributes to over four million deaths per year, making it the fourth leading cause of death globally. As governments and community leaders work to mitigate these effects, they rely on an accurate understanding of air quality and its impact on health to evaluate the effectiveness of potential actions and interventions.
NREL researchers have developed the capabilities needed to provide these insights both domestically and internationally. NREL's air quality research capabilities include:
- Codevelopment and implementation of a novel, reduced-complexity air quality model, Global Intervention Model for Air Pollution (Global InMAP), to model global air quality and health changes
- Application of a range of source-specific and regional air quality models to analyze changes to pollutant concentrations
- Air quality and public health impact analysis for both domestic and international regions
- Quantification of air quality and public health cobenefits for any energy sector’s clean transition
- Air quality-focused environmental justice and just energy transition analyses.
These capabilities allow NREL to conduct air quality analysis research in diverse contexts, including environmental justice, international air quality, power systems, and biofuels analysis. These analyses are often considered together with accounting of greenhouse gas emissions and decarbonization plans. In each of these analyses, NREL researchers follow a fundamental multistep approach by:
- Identifying emission sources and their changes
- Translating the changes in sources to changes in emissions
- Modeling air pollutant concentrations
- Conducting health impact estimations
- Analyzing the distribution of pollutants and health impacts to disadvantaged communities.
These steps are applied both domestically and internationally to develop a comprehensive understanding of a given region's air quality status and help map a path toward improvements.
While air pollution is a global problem, its severity and impact often vary regionally and by demographic groups, most notably between disadvantaged communities and non-disadvantaged communities. Through analysis of air quality and public health modeling results, NREL evaluates the distribution of air pollutant concentrations and consequent health effects, for instance, in the context of communities' transitions to clean energy. Researchers model and compare pollution metrics such as the concentration of ozone and fine particulate matter, as well as health indicators such as premature mortality, cardiovascular-related hospital admissions, and asthma-related emergency department visits under different scenarios and compare the results between disadvantaged communities and non-disadvantaged communities.
One example is the Los Angeles 100% Renewable Energy Study (and its extension on equity strategies), where researchers quantified the disparities related to air pollutant concentrations and air quality-related health impacts. NREL is also incorporating environmental justice analysis in several ongoing studies to investigate various decarbonization efforts, like the conversion of power plants to combust hydrogen (H2), and electrification strategies of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. Through these analyses, NREL provides the insights needed to craft policies and programs that improve equity in the outcomes of clean energy transitions to facilitate just energy transitions.
Clean Energy Cobenefits: Air Quality, Health and Just Transitions, NREL Fact Sheet (2023)
Chapter 10: Environmental Justice in the Los Angeles 100% Renewable Energy Study, NREL Technical Report (2021)
NREL applies its air quality research capabilities internationally to help motivate a just energy transition around the world. Recent air quality research into South and Central Asia examined connections between electricity production and air quality. Researchers focused on identifying electricity-sector policies that can mitigate the impact of fossil-fuel power generation on air quality and public health, and measure the impact of air pollution on solar power generation.
In order to expand international air quality research capabilities, NREL supported the development of the Global InMAP, in partnership with the University of Minnesota and the U.S. Department of State. This model expands on a previous open-source model to estimate air pollution outcomes and the impact on health damages around the world. Global InMAP can model air quality and health changes for any type of source at global, regional, national, and subnational scales. It is the first global air quality model that is designed for use by stakeholders to apply findings to public health and environmental justice analyses, development strategies, and policy formation. In turn, it empowers stakeholders to make data-driven decisions about clean energy deployment. Its first application was to evaluate renewable energy integration and transmission scenarios in Southeast Asia, with more applications underway.
Using the Global InMAP, researchers can:
- Quantify air quality and health benefits of changes to any air pollutant-emitting source, being especially well-suited for prospective scenarios
- Provide baseline air quality assessment to inform planning, policymaking, and regulatory decision-making
- Assist in the prioritization of mitigation strategies or sources to target, for instance, within the context of decarbonization strategies and pathways
- Help regional partners communicate air quality cobenefits to stakeholders.
- Power sector transitions to incorporate more clean energy sources, (e.g., reducing use of coal or adding carbon capture and sequestration to coal plants, transitioning natural gas plants to hydrogen, or increasing shares of solar or wind)
- Electrification of certain types of vehicles and their air quality, health, and just energy transition benefits
- Comparison of decarbonizing different sectors
- Comparison of the benefits of electrifying vehicles in certain locations (e.g., buses in certain zones in a city) or of electrifying other vehicles categories (e.g., buses compared to heavy-duty trucks, or taxis compared to two-wheeled vehicles).
An Overview of Policies Influencing Air Pollution From the Electricity Sector in Central Asia, NREL Technical Report (2022)
An Overview of Policies Influencing Air Pollution From the Electricity Sector in South Asia, NREL Technical Report (2021)
Conventional power generation technologies based on fossil fuels are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) as well as non-GHG air pollutants. As more stakeholders consider and incorporate clean energy technologies to meet U.S. electricity demand, NREL air quality researchers are investigating the impact of the transition on air quality and public health as well as environmental justice (Just Energy Transition). Through the modeling of various future energy scenarios, researchers are able to determine which future clean energy pathways lead to the greatest reduction of pollutant emissions and consequent air quality-related health problems. This includes conversion of natural gas-burning turbines to combustion of hydrogen, both in blends with natural gas and as pure hydrogen.
This analysis has been integrated in several large-scale, high-impact future scenario studies, including Los Angeles 100% Renewable Energy Study, and a report addressing additional environmental considerations of the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Futures Study, where researchers quantified the air-quality benefits of increasing solar deployment while also increasing electricity demand through electrification of vehicles.
Environmental and Circular Economy Implications of Solar Energy in a Decarbonized U.S. Grid, NREL Technical Report (2022)
Chapter 9: Air Quality and Public Health in the Los Angeles 100% Renewable Energy Study, NREL Technical Report (2021)
The processes involved in growing biomass feedstocks and producing biofuels result in the emissions of a wide range of air pollutants. To better understand this important source of air pollution, NREL air quality researchers study air pollutant emissions from the entire biofuel supply chain and their implications on air quality and human health. Additionally, NREL studies how air quality regulations can affect the cost, operation, and sustainability of the biofuels industry, generally, and biorefineries, specifically.
NREL's work focuses on two important stages of the biofuel life cycle—biomass production, harvest, and transport and biomass conversion to biofuels in biorefineries. To investigate these stages, NREL develops and applies air pollutant emissions quantification tools and uses county-level data to quantify air pollutant emissions. NREL also uses the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's guidance documents and models, a material balance approach, and permits for analogous units to develop emission estimates.
Learn more about NREL's biofuels air emissions analysis research.
Emission Factors of Industrial Boilers Burning Biomass-Derived Fuels, Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association (2023)
Biorefinery Upgrading of Herbaceous Biomass to Renewable Hydrocarbon Fuels, Part 2: Air Pollutant Emissions and Permitting Implications, Journal of Cleaner Production (2022)
Characterization Factors and Other Air Quality Impact Metrics: Case Study for PM2.5-Emitting Area Sources From Biofuel Feedstock Supply, Science of the Total Environment (2022)
Potential Air Pollutant Emissions and Permitting Classifications for Two Biorefinery Process Designs in the United States, Environment Science and Technology (2017)
Federal Air Pollutant Emission Regulations and Preliminary Estimates of Potential-to-Emit From Biorefineries. Pathway #2: Conversion of Lignocellulosic Biomass to Hydrocarbon Fuels Fast Pyrolysis and Hydrotreating Bio-Oil Pathway, NREL Technical Report (2017)
Economic Implications of Incorporating Emission Controls to Mitigate Air Pollutants Emitted From a Modeled Hydrocarbon-Fuel Bio Refinery in the United States, Biofuels, Bioproducts, and Biorefining (2016)
Federal Air Pollutant Emission Regulations and Preliminary Estimates of Potential-to-Emit From Biorefineries. Pathway #1: Dilute Acid Enzymatic Deconstruction of Biomass to Sugars and Biological Conversion of Sugars to Hydrocarbons, NREL Technical Report (2016)
Air Pollutant Emissions Inventory of Large-Scale Production of Selected Biofuels Feedstocks in 2022, Biofuels, Bioproducts, and Biorefining (2015)Process Design and Economics for the Conversion of Lignocellulosic Biomass to Hydrocarbon Fuels: Fast Pyrolysis and Hydrotreating Bio-Oil Pathway, NREL Technical Report (2013)
Energy and Atmospheric Systems Catalyzer
NREL's Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis launched the Energy and Atmospheric Systems Catalyzer to investigate the multidirectional relationships across climate, air quality, and energy systems. This catalyzer is a multi-year initiative focused on identifying emerging questions, establishing new research capabilities, and providing thought leadership in climate change and atmospheric sciences. The catalyzer's concentrated efforts have enabled broader use of emissions and air quality models in flagship studies and have expanded air quality analysis capabilities for future domestic and international partnerships.
Learn more about the Energy and Atmospheric Systems Catalyzer's air quality efforts.
Partner With NREL
NREL works with stakeholders at the international, domestic, and regional levels to analyze the impacts of energy system changes on air quality and public health.