Climate Change and Your Power Company

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You’re a concerned consumer who buys Fair Trade coffee, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and recycled paper. When you plug in your coffee pot, flip a light switch, or turn on your computer printer, does the power you’re using reflect those same sustainable choices?

Right now, there’s a good chance it doesn’t if that power comes from coal. More than half the US currently gets its electricity from coal, and more than 130 new coal-fired power plants are set to begin construction all around the country. Unfortunately, coal remains one of the dirtiest power sources in use. Not only are coal-fired power plants implicated in polluting our air and waterways, but the use of coal also accelerates the most destructive environmental catastrophe we face—global warming.

As consumers, together, it’s vital that we tell our power companies to stop using coal today and make the shift to cleaner, greener energy sources.

The Problems with Coal

Burning coal fuels climate change and puts our planet in great peril. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, coal-fired power plants are the largest US source of carbon dioxide pollution, emitting 2.5 billion tons per year. Carbon dioxide is one of the main “greenhouse gases” that trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, causing the planet’s temperature to rise, melting glaciers, raising sea levels, altering ecosystems, and triggering increased severity of weather events like hurricanes. (Gas-powered automobiles—the next most significant US source of carbon dioxide pollution—produce a full one billion tons less per year than do coal-fired power plants.)

Just as serious are coal’s effects on human health. More than 75 percent of all waterways in the US are polluted with mercury, rendering their fish unsafe for human consumption. Coal plants account for 99 percent of US mercury emissions. They also account for 96 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions and 93 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions, says the Sierra Club. These pollutants weaken the lungs, making those exposed more susceptible to lung infections. Sulfur dioxide and particulate matter from coal plants have been implicated in triggering severe asthma attacks, and a UCLA School of Medicine study found that over time, repeated exposure to air pollutants like those emitted from coal plants can cause as much damage to the lungs as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Also, when sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide react with water and oxygen in the air, they form toxic acid rain.

What You Can Do

Use your consumer and investor power to shift the electricity industry in this country to cleaner, renewable technologies in the following ways:

1. Switch to green power. If you live in an area where you can choose to power your home sustainably, do so. For example, customers in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee can choose the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Green Power Switch program, which feeds energy from solar, wind, and methane gas sources into the power grid. Currently, 34 states and the District of Columbia offer alternatives for customers who want to purchase green power. For a complete list of green power options, visit the US Department of Energy’s Web site

2. Buy green tags. If your energy company doesn’t offer green power, you can offset your carbon dioxide emissions by purchasing “green tags,” or compensatory energy credits that add renewable power to the grid equal to the power you use at home. Numerous green tag programs exist; one with which Green America has a partnership is NativeEnergy.

3. Write to your power company. Utility companies say they don’t hear from their customers about climate concerns. It is time to let them know how you feel. Include a note with your next bill, or write a letter to your power company outlining your concerns about climate risk. Tell it that you expect it to devote more of its research and development resources to providing cleaner sources of electricity, and to rely less on coal.

4. Improve your efficiency. One of the best and least expensive ways to reduce greenhouse 
gas emissions is to improve your energy efficiency. Steps like weatherstripping windows and doors, purchasing efficient appliances, and turning down your thermostat can make a huge difference.

5. Make your own energy. With states offering residential renewable energy tax incentives as high as $20,000 (and the federal government offering a $2,000 incentive through 2007), self-generated green energy is more accessible than ever before and an excellent long-term investment. To learn more about going solar at home, download the Summer 2005 Green American"The Promise of the Solar Future," and “Tax Cuts For Cleaner Energy” (Real Money March/April 2005).

6. Use your investor power. If you invest in power companies that continue to rely on coal, tell them about your concerns, ask them to examine and report on their role in creating climate risk, and announce that you prefer your investment dollars to be directed toward cleaner technologies. If you invest in mutual funds, tell your mutual fund company that you expect them to vote for sustainability on any climate risk resolutions that come before them. Finally, if you invest in any of the companies facing investor resolutions (see the following section), cast your vote for sustainability on your proxy ballot.

Shareholder Targets

A January 2006 report from the Department of Energy (DOE) listed more than 80 energy companies planning to increase their production of coal-powered electricity in almost every US state. (The box below tells you who’s building in your state.)

Of these, six energy companies faced shareholder resolutions filed this year by investors who are concerned that coal power is not just bad for human health and the planet, but ruinous for a company’s reputation and profitability as well. The shareholders asked that each company report on its plans for responding to rising regulatory, competitive, and public pressure to reduce power-plant related carbon dioxide and other emissions.

In February, shareholders withdrew their resolutions with four of the companies—Alliant Energy, Great Plains Energy, MGE Energy, and WPS Energy—after they agreed to address their climate footprint before the issue was put to a vote. However, resolutions are still pending with Dominion Resources and Peabody Energy. Dominion Resources is planning to construct a new coal pier at its Chesapeake, Virginia, power plant in order to import lower-cost coal by barge from overseas. Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company, opened an office in Beijing last fall, where fewer environmental regulations increase coal’s negative effects.

Shifting corporate consciousness at our nation’s energy companies, while each of us works to go green with our own power at home, will help create a sustainable energy market in the US that works for people and the planet.