Do You Know Your Electricity’s Pedigree?

Do You Know Your Electricity’s Pedigree?

If someone were to ask you where your electricity comes from, would you just say, “a power plant”, or would you be able to recite chapter and verse of the specific power plant, its primary fuel and fuel mix (if any), and how much that fuel contributed to your overall environmental footprint in terms of greenhouse gases (GHGs).

These gases, like nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, methane and fluorinated gases as used in refrigeration and cooling, contribute enormously to global warming or climate change. The worst of them, carbon dioxide or CO2, is the subject of heated debate amongst Republicans and environmentalists, the former denying global warming – and particularly anthropogenic, or human-caused, warming – and the latter convinced that we humans have already gone too far in the wrong direction to recover in time to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The arguments are now familiar to all Americans save the very youngest, the very oldest, and those living in caves. The best scientists have hedged their bets, now sure that global warming is a result of humanity’s actions, but not entirely certain that all is lost.

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In fact, we can change, and one of the first steps along that road to change is recognizing what we are doing to contribute to the earth’s burden of CO2. We can, for example, choose to drive less, drive a cleaner-burning car, or choose alternate transportation. We can ride the bus or other public transit, reducing our personal GHG burden by combining it with hundreds of other individuals.

Last, we can choose to cut back on our electricity usage, at work and at home, especially if that usage requires a “dirty” fossil fuel like coal or oil. And this is the heart of the problem, because too many individuals don’t really know how their electricity is generated.

In my neck of the woods, for example, electricity generation is only halfway to being “clean”; renewable, that is. This renewable component is largely wind energy, and hydroelectric energy with just a shadow of solar energy. In addition, my regional electric utility burns coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear fuel, and trash or RDF (refuse-derived fuel) from municipal solid waste.

This utility also buys power from other electricity suppliers which do not act as a resource for individuals but only to other power brokers (or traders, as it may be, who sell this electricity at “spot prices” which reflect the true cost of burning coal, oil or natural gas at that time).

The information on how much of the total each resource represents can be gleaned by visiting a power plant page, which lists fuel by resource and by megawatts (MW) of electricity. By listing the power plants and noting how many MW are produced, I can get a pretty clear picture. The only blind spot in this picture is purchased electricity – a blind spot that some interactive smart meters aim to correct by digitally informing customers not only of a fuel mix on an hour-by-hour basis but its cost. This “picture” enables ecofriendly homeowners and business owners to choose less polluting fuel by shifting activities that require electricity (laundry, dishes, bathing, etc.) to hours or periods of time (afternoon, early morning, late evening) when electricity demand is smallest.

Simply put, according to a 2009 “smart” meter review by Deloitte, a global consulting firm, action is required on both sides of the fuel v. fuel (or electricity use versus energy conservation) equation, moving public utilities beyond the energy supply regime into teaching customers about various fuels and their effect on climate change, and convincing consumers that they have a powerful role to play in intelligent and earth-friendly energy choices.

In other words, note the paper’s authors, utilities must re-engineer not only their fuel-choice equations, but their customers’ perceptions of the utility relationship. Then, it is hoped and believed, intelligent choice will prevail and consumers will recognize, and reduce, their handiwork in rising emissions.

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