A recent New York Times blog post from Kristina Shevory took a good look at what California’s failure to meet clean air standards has meant for the health of its residents–and its budget. Air pollution’s links to poor health and higher medical costs across the spectrum (personal, insurance, governmental) are behind federal regulations, and in the fight for cleaner air, cleaner energy production often comes up.

Solar panels are carbon neutral after just a few years–that is, the carbon they save by replacing traditional energy generation offsets 100 percent of the carbon-fueled energy that went into their manufacture and distribution. It’s this squeaky-clean technology, easily deployable in urban areas where air quality is poorest, that so appeals to legislators. Occasionally, the connection is explicit: the USDA, for instance, will use Clean Air Act funds to provide grants for solar energy projects in some cases.

But back to California in particular. In her blog post, Shevory was working off information in a report from RAND Consulting that pinned huge medical costs directly to bad air quality:

California’s dirty air caused more than $193 million in hospital-based medical care from 2005 to 2007 as people sought help for problems such as asthma and pneumonia that are triggered by elevated pollution levels…[E]xposure to excessive levels of ozone and particulate pollution caused nearly 30,000 emergency room visits and hospital admissions over the study period. Public insurance programs were responsible for most of the costs, with Medicare and Medi-Cal covering more than two-thirds of the expenses…

With California’s tremendous budget difficulties a distillation of national concerns, plus the current hot topic of health care reform, this report could not be more timely. If we can reduce health care and medical costs by improving air quality; and if improving air quality can be partially achieved with strong support for clean energy, such as solar; then it stands to reason that states should be pushing hard for this. Yes, solar is expensive, but so are the burdens on hospitals and insurance companies, elemental pieces of the consumer-end health care cost puzzle.

When discussing whether solar may be the right choice in any given case, you always discuss energy efficiency first. This is because it is cheaper to save energy than to produce it (however cleanly). The same theory applies here: let’s reduce health care costs by preventing them in the first place. Distributed clean energy generation can do more than reduce our dependence on foreign fuel sources and make our energy bills more manageable: it can make us healthier, too.