At the Front Door: Renewable and Carbon-Free Energy – a column on climate change in our lives
Renewable and carbon-free energy is cheaper than fossil fuels!
Don’t believe me? Look at your energy bill.
San Jose has a program called San Jose Clean Energy, which is one of 23 Community Choice Energy (CCE) programs in California. In fact, the vast majority Bay Area communities are part of CCE programs. These programs provide “competitively priced clean energy options to customers” and reinvests any revenues into local communities. The majority of San Jose residents were automatically enrolled in this program in 2019, and once enrolled your power bill would have gone down. That’s right, the default option from San Jose Clean Energy provides consumers with 45% renewable energy at a cost that is approximately 1% less than what you would pay for traditional energy generation (which is currently about 29% renewable). For $5 more a month you can opt for a plan with 100% renewable sources. All it takes is the click of a button on your PG&E account.
But money isn’t the only way we pay for our fixation with fossil fuels. An article published in Nature in 2017 stated that “all energy production has environmental and societal effects.” Another way to term ‘effects’ is to say ‘costs’. But what, exactly, does that mean?
To calculate the true cost of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, we must factor in the social and environmental cost of their carbon emissions. Let’s take coal as an example. In 2011 the perceived cost of coal was 3.4 cents per kilowatt-hour. However, a report by the National Academies of Science noted that each kilowatt-hour also cost 5.6 cents in adverse health impacts.
Another study put the cost of coal’s ‘externalities’- meaning releasing carbon dioxide – at between 9.4 to 26.9 cents per kilowatt-hour. They averaged their guess to about 17.8 cents, this may not seem like a lot but that puts the cost of the United States coal addiction at “a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually” in unaccounted for costs. And it turns out that these numbers are likely too low. Recent research has indicated that the costs of carbon are more severe and one of the study’s authors noted that a higher number is more realistic.
And some countries will pay much, much, more than others. A paper recently released in Nature Climate Change used recent climate model projections and economic and social damage estimates to devise a country-specific social cost of carbon (CSCC). The CSCC is, in short, the projected “economic damages from carbon dioxide emissions” by country – and it highlights that the consequences of carbon emissions will fall unevenly across the globe. And it turns out that India, struggling under a cost of $86 per ton of carbon, will pay the most. In fact, the next closest country is the United States, which will end up paying just over half of what India will pay at $48 per ton of carbon.
The non-monetary costs of fossil fuels have already become apparent in industrializing countries like India. A study published by the Mumbai-based Conservation Action Trust found that “[a]s many as 115,000 people die in India each year from coal-fired power plant pollution, costing the country about $4.6 billion.” The number of fatalities includes 10,000 children under the age of five.
India’s demand for energy, and thus its coal use and subsequent negative health impacts, will likely continue to rise. Despite its reliance on fossil fuels, the Indian government has placed a tax on coal with the aim of spurring developments in renewables. If India is able to take this initiative, why can’t we?
The money that comes out of our monthly budget isn’t actually what we pay for energy. We pay with our health in the form of lower air quality, higher asthma rates, and higher COVID-19 mortality. We pay social costs with environmental degradation, increased social inequality, and a reduced quality of life. In short, we pay with shorter, sicker, less-equitable, and less-enjoyable lives. And worst of all, we pay with the lives and the future of our children.
Erin Zimmerman is trained as a Climate Reality Leader in 2019 by the Climate Reality Project, but has been active in the environmental movement for over a decade. Erin holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Adelaide, where she focused on environmental degradation and its impacts on country and regional stability in Asia. She is currently the Chair of the Speakers’ Bureau of the Santa Clara Chapter of the Climate Reality Project and an active member of the Legislative and Policy team.
Image credit: Hermina Oláh Vass
Friedman, Lisa. (2013). “Coal-Fired Power in India May Cause More Than 100,000 Premature Deaths Annually.” Scientific American. URL: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/coal-fired-power-in-india-may-cause-more-than-100000-premature-deaths-annually/
Greenstone, M and Looney, A. (2011), “The Real Costs of U.S. Energy.” Brookings Institute. URL: https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/the-real-costs-of-u-s-energy/
Gres, E. (2017). “The Real Cost of Energy.” Nature, URL: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-017-07510-3
Harvey, C. and Gronewold, N. (2019). “CO2 Emissions Will Break Another Record in 2019.” Scientific American. URL: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/co2-emissions-will-break-another-record-in-2019/
Meyer, R. (2015), “This Is the Real Cost of Coal.” Mother Jones, URL: https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/08/coals-cost-climate-change/
Ricke, K., Drouet, L., Caldeira, K., Tavoni, M. (2018). “Country-Level Social Cost of Carbon.” Nature Climate Change, Vol.8: 895-900.
San Jose Clean Energy. (2020). URL: https://sanjosecleanenergy.org/totalgreen/