The New Green: Cleaning up the electrical grid
Published: Thursday, September 13, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 13, 2012 23:09
It’s hard to imagine what daily life would be like without the use of electrical power. The production of electricity in the United States creates a gigantic carbon footprint, representing 40 percent of our country’s total energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. Furthermore, 90 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. comes from three sources: coal, oil and natural gas. The problem with these sources is that they all spew incredible amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (thus increasing climate change), and also require extraction from the earth, which often results in detrimental effects to the environment and human health (think of the horrible coal mine conditions in our own Appalachia).
Clearly, there is a lot of room for improvement and the solution is simple: we need to reduce our electricity use and switch over to renewable energy. Some industrious Americans have ensured their energy security by going “off the grid,” or generating their own renewable electricity separate from their local power companies. If everyone did this, the effects of climate change would be greatly reduced and, as an added bonus, we would all have complete energy security. However, this is simply not practical or affordable for the average person. Instead, our society needs to seek out realistic alternatives, and endeavor to make the right choice (using renewable energy).
One way to do this is to participate in local clean energy cooperatives. These businesses are springing up all over the world. In Germany for example, Ursula Sladek, a mother of five who was outraged by the Chernobyl accident, chose to create an alternative to nuclear power. According to The Huffington Post, over the course of 11 years “she and neighbors had raised the millions of euros needed to buy out the area’s private power grid and turn it into a clean-energy co-op. Now with over 1,000 owners, the co-op uses and supports decentralized renewable power like solar and wind for 120,000 customers, including households and factories.” Many local energy cooperatives follow this model: the company offers shares to community members at an affordable price and uses the capital to purchase the means of renewable energy production (like wind turbines or solar panels). The shareholders elect a board of directors to oversee the daily operations, and often receive an annual dividend. Overall, the result is a community that is much less dependent on fossil fuels, has many local jobs and has increased community wealth.
Local energy co-ops are beneficial to communities because they offer more options and control for consumers in how their energy is produced. The United States has many local energy cooperatives (there is one about an hour away from campus, in Norwich, but many of them have yet to dedicate their business to the production of clean energy. Anyone who uses electricity has the power to join an energy co-op, to encourage their co-op to switch over to renewable energy or to start their own clean energy co-op for their community.
One way of achieving this goal is by promoting Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies. The idea behind EPR is to make manufacturers responsible for the entire lifecycle of their product, meaning that even after the product is sold the company is responsible for any waste and pollution that the product generates. For example, Germany’s Packaging Ordinance of 1991 holds producers responsible for packaging wastes associated with their products. As a direct result of the ordinance, packaging consumption decreased by about one million tons in four years. In a capitalist economic system, EPR would have tremendous benefits for the environment, as companies would suddenly be competing to minimize their pollution and optimize their recycling – not out of their own hippy-dippy environmental awareness, but because it affects their bottom line. Taxpayers would benefit as well, as they would no longer be footing the bill for waste management costs. Some state legislatures in the U.S. have begun to implement EPR frameworks, but there have yet to be any comprehensive EPR laws that truly hold manufacturers responsible. There is tremendous room for growth in this area. According to the Product Policy Institute, the U.S.’s current consumer recycling rate of 48 percent is embarrassingly low compared to European nations with mature EPR policies, which recycle more than 70 percent. Increasing the U.S. recycling rate to 75 percent would not only alleviate public taxes and help the environment, but would also create 1.5 million new jobs.