The Arizona desert may enjoy nearly endless sun, but is it the really best place for solar panels? Maybe not. A new study suggests that cloudier New Jersey is actually the state that will get the most value from switching to photovoltaics, not because of the amount of sunlight in the Garden State but because adding solar power capacity there would result in the greatest reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and dangerous pollutants.

The same might hold true for wind turbines: the most value could come not from the places with most wind but the areas that have the dirtiest air. "A wind turbine in West Virginia displaces twice as much carbon dioxide and seven times as much health damage as the same turbine in California," explains Siler Evans, a Ph.D. researcher in Carnegie Mellon University's Department of Engineering and Public Policy and the lead author of the new study, published earlier this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The difference in West Virginia's case comes from reliance on coal as its current source of energy. Transitioning from coal to wind in West Virginia would generate electricity while also improving residents' health and help to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition to health and climate concerns, the paper also addresses the economic factor. The researchers argue that the federal Production Tax Credit, which subsidizes wind energy, would have a greater social impact if it varied by location, instead of being implemented in the same manner across the country. "It is time to think about a subsidy program that encourages operators to build plants in places where they will yield the most health and climate benefits," co-author Ines Lima Azevedo, executive director of the Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making, said in a press release about the new study.

Outside of federal subsidies, state subsidies have resulted in the rapid growth of solar and wind power in the Southwest and Midwest. The authors argue that these might not be the best places. Using their criteria of providing the most social value, they say the best sites for future wind and solar would be Ohio, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania, all of which rely heavily on coal.

The Carnegie Mellon study is accompanied by a related commentary by authors from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and other organizations who say the "co-benefits" of using solar and wind to reduce CO2 and sulfur dioxide emissions present "a compelling narrative" for policy makers. The authors argue that there are "synergies between renewable energy policy and health and climate protection" that governments could put to good use both in the U.S. and the European Union.

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The best place for solar power is ... New Jersey?
New study says it's not about the best light, but where solar and wind can do the most good.