How 'Green' is your Electricity?
By Andy Kerr
Column #26 - Go to next column
Length: 750 words
Published: 17 July, 1997, Wallowa County Chieftain
Electricity consumers will soon be able to choose their power company, like choosing their long-distance telephone provider. Competition may lower bills and potentially allow the purchase of electricity made with less environmental impact.
If the market is competitive, price will not be the major factor in consumer choice. Since all electrons are alike, product differentiation will be the critical competitive factor. Along with frequent flyer miles promotions, expect the electric companies to market the "green-ness" of their product versus the competition. Market tests elsewhere make clear that some consumers will pay more for electricity that has been produced with less environmental impact.
Most companies will claim their power is more "green" than their competitors. The nuclear power industry already touts the air pollution-free nature of their product, failing to mention radioactive wastes that must be contained for tens of thousands of years. While electricity from natural gas produces less air pollution than from coal or oil, it still produces dirty air. Hydroelectric power touts its renewability over fossil fuels, but it is not sustainable. Just ask a Columbia River salmon.
There is no truly "green" electricity presently available to the average consumer. There is electricity that can be characterized as less "brown" than others.
I once calculated how many salmon died annually to light and heat our former Portland home. Surprisingly, it was about one-third of a fish; testimony to the power of the cumulative effects of many houses like mine and inefficient electrical uses enabled by power not priced to reflect environmental costs.
Preferring to eat salmon rather damming them to power our Joseph house, we've converted to compact fluorescent lights and our heat now comes from the ground. Some electricity is still used to power the compressor and fan, but now three times more efficiently. Fewer fish die.
Environmentalists have trouble agreeing on what is green power.
The brown-est electricity that Pacific Northwesterners use is nuclear and coal. While some things could be done to make them a little lighter shade of brown, these can't claim even a tint of green.
"Natural" gas (methane, a major contributor to global warming) is relatively cleaner, but still a very dark brown.
Depending on where sited, wind (can kill birds) and geothermal power (can mess up hot springs and national parks) can be significantly lighter brown.
Hydropower is problematic. The conservation group American Rivers has proposed standards for re-licensing dams that no Columbia or Snake river dam could meet. Yet, the Environmental Defense Fund is promoting the sale of "environmentally friendly" power from that mega salmon-killer, the Bonneville Power Administration. EDF claims electricity produced by dams during already-mandated annual spring "fish flush flows" to speed salmon smolts to the ocean is "environmentally beneficial," compared to the power produced at other times or without the flush. One would need a high-resolution color spectrometer to discern the slightly lighter shade of brown involved.
There is a direct relationship between the brown-ness of its electricity and the amount of government subsidies to the industry producing it. Most subsidized is nuclear power, from limited accident liability to free waste storage. Those that use up—rather than conserve—resources like oil, natural gas and coal, receive tax breaks called depletion allowances.
While a small—but significant—amount of the market is willing to pay more for green power, it's more rational to level the playing field, by either removing tax breaks for dirty electricity or give similar breaks for cleaner electricity. In the long run, truly green forms of energy, like solar thermal heating and photovoltaic electricity are the cheapest to the consumer, society and the Earth, but can't compete against such subsidies. Unfortunately, it is been government policy to subsidize consumption, not conservation. Quit subsidizing the former, and there is no need to subsidize the latter.
Ironically, we already have technologies that could reduce electric consumption by 75%—with no loss of quality of life. Life would actually improve as the air would be cleaner, the salmon would come back and we'd spend less money on energy.
In any event, consumers are going to need help wading through the hype to judge the green-ness or brown-ness of their electricity. Independent certification is necessary to ensure that consumer has full and accurate information about how their electricity is produced. Finally, green standards should initially be set low to encourage the development of this new market, and then progressively raised to move the electric power market to both renewability and sustainability.