Generating electricity from renewable energy rather than fossil fuels offers significant public health benefits. The air and water pollution emitted by coal and natural gas plants is linked to breathing problems, neurological damage, heart attacks, and cancer. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy has been found to reduce premature mortality and lost workdays, and it reduces overall healthcare costs . The aggregate national economic impact associated with these health impacts of fossil fuels is between $361.7 and $886.5 billion, or between 2.5 percent and 6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
Wind, solar, and hydroelectric systems generate electricity with no associated air pollution emissions. While geothermal and biomass energy systems emit some air pollutants, total air emissions are generally much lower than those of coal- and natural gas-fired power plants.
In addition, wind and solar energy require essentially no water to operate and thus do not pollute water resources or strain supply by competing with agriculture, drinking water systems, or other important water needs. In contrast, fossil fuels can have a significant impact on water resources. For example, both coal mining and natural gas drilling can pollute sources of drinking water. Natural gas extraction by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) requires large amounts of water and all thermal power plants, including those powered by coal, gas, and oil, withdraw and consume water for cooling.
Biomass and geothermal power plants, like coal- and natural gas-fired power plants, require water for cooling. In addition, hydroelectric power plants impact river ecosystems both upstream and downstream from the dam. However, NREL's 80 percent by 2050 renewable energy study, which included biomass and geothermal, found that water withdrawals would decrease 51 percent to 58 percent by 2050 and water consumption would be reduced by 47 percent to 55 percent .