silhouettes of power towers at dusk

The Environmental Impact of the Electricity System

Week 27

Light bulbs, appliances, hot showers, heating and cooling all require electricity to fulfill our most basic needs. In fact, even during my Appalachian Trail thru hike, I was dependent on my phone and flashlight on a daily basis. Come to think of it, I can't recall a day spent without some form of electricity.

Upon learning that electricity generates the second largest share of greenhouse gas emissions, I decided to dedicate Week 27 to educating myself on why it has such a large impact on the environment. Honestly, this topic is so broad and overwhelming that I've had a hard time narrowing down the key points. I've done my best to give a brief outline of problems within the electricity system, but I implore you to seek our more detailed explanations of its affect on the planet via NASA and the The Environmental Protection Agency.

How does the electricity system impact the environment?

This list from the EPA outlines the ways non-renewable energy affect climate change and the environment.

  • Emissions of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants, especially when a fuel is burned.
  • Use of water resources to produce steam, provide cooling, and serve other functions. Take a look at last week's post for more information on the importance of water conservation.
  • Discharges of pollution into water bodies, including thermal pollution (water that is hotter than the original temperature of the water body).
  • Generation of solid waste, which may include hazardous waste.
  • Land use for fuel production, power generation, and transmission and distribution lines.
  • Effects on plants, animals, and ecosystems that result from the air, water, waste, and land impacts above.

Focusing specifically on that first point, approximately 62% of electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas. This burning releases greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, which traps heat that would normally escape into space and in turn, warms the planet. Yes, Earth has gone through waves of extreme temperatures, but the globe is currently heating up at a historically high rate.

What are the negative impacts of global warming?

A warming planet affects virtually every aspect of life on Earth. In the most basic breakdown, rising temperatures cause a warmer climate, a decrease in our fresh water supply, more extreme weather patterns, rising sea levels, and irreparable damage to ecosystems. Some areas, like Russia, will likely thrive with warmer temperatures. Others, like the Middle East, will become uninhabitable.

An overwhelming majority of scientists, 97 percent, agree not only that Earth's climate is warming, but that humans are the primary cause. For more in depth explanations about climate change, global warming, and greenhouse gases, please head to NASA's Global Climate Change website, which is dedicated to the education of these topics.

Are there more sustainable energy options?

A shift to green energy is among the top solutions to the climate crisis, since renewable energy sources, like wind and solar, don't emit carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. Renewable energy sources are theoretically inexhaustable, unlike fossil fuels which are limited and already becoming more difficult to find. Other benefits of a shift towards green energy include more jobs, lower energy bills, and more resilient electricity grids.

Since most renewable resources aren't widely available to the public, it's important to reach out to your local representative and request that our government make a plan to reduce emissions by investing in renewable resources and elimating fossil based fuel sources. You can use my letter of the week as a template.

How can I waste less electricity?

Residential use accounts for 38% of electricity consumption in the US, so cutting back at home will actually made a difference. While switching to solar pannels may not be in the cards right away, there are plenty of little ways you can cut back around the house. Turning the lights off when you leave a room and washing laundry with cold water are both small changes that make a big difference. Read my next post for 15 ways to use less electricity and remember that cutting back is not only better for the environment, but it can seriously reduce your monthly spending.

15 Easy Ways to Conserve Energy and Cut Down Your Electric Bill →