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Ask the GreenMan

| Monday, January 24, 2011

Dear GreenMan,

There’s a coal power plant just a few hundred yards from where I work! It sprays soot into the air, covering my windowsill with dust on warm Summer days and turning pristine snow into a dirty grey in the middle of Winter. And, even worse, it emits sulfur dioxide, mercury, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide, along with a host of small quantities of other unhealthy and toxic materials. What can I, as an individual in my daily life, do to shut down this coal power plant and replace it with a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable source of electricity?



Graduate Student

Department of Philosophy

Dear Dan,

As a reader of this newspaper, I presume you are referring to our much beloved campus power plant, which does indeed rely on coal as its primary fuel source.

While it is unlikely that the soot on your windowsill came from this plant (whose particulate matter emissions are consistently below EPA thresholds by a significant margin), you are absolutely correct that by burning coal, the plant releases significant quantities of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide. There is no doubt that coal power plants are unsustainable, relying on a depletable resource that emits more carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced than any other fuel.

You ask what you can do as an individual to entirely shut this plant down, and the answer is that quite frankly, acting alone, you are unlikely to make any progress toward the goal of shutting down this, or any other, coal-fired power plant. Sure, you could write letters and make phone calls, but the odds that the discontent of a single consumer will persuade a power plant to close or change its fuel source are not in your favor, my friend.

But fear not, dear Dan! Collective action is proving more and more effective against coal interests. In fact, 2010 was recently dubbed “The Year the Tide Turned Against Coal” — and with good reason! Movements like the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign helped ensure that in the past year zero new coal plants began construction, thirty-eight proposals for new coal plants were either abandoned or defeated and forty-eight coal plants announced their impending retirement.

One of the forces driving these achievements has been student activism. Students on several major university campuses have secured coal-free commitments from their universities. Perhaps it’s time Notre Dame students made an effort to make this campus coal-free. It will need to be a collective effort, to be sure, but that effort will begin with an individual. That individual could be you.

Victories like these have contributed to the increased presence of renewable energy sources providing power on the U.S. electric grid. As a result, the majority of U.S. consumers now have the option to either pay a small premium per kilowatt-hour to source their electricity with renewable sources through their current utility, or switch to a utility provider that uses entirely renewable sources.

While choosing a utility provider is not necessarily an option for students on a college campus, it’s certainly something to consider in the future, as we move beyond “the bubble.” Here are a couple helpful tools to help you assess and improve the “cleanliness” of your electricity:

Using your zip code and utility provider’s name, the EPA’s online Power Profiler will break down your region’s fuel mix and help you calculate your home’s annual CO2, NOx, and SO2 emissions. The Department of Energy’s Green Power Network makes it easy to find out if buying green power is an option in your area, by listing any state-specific utility green pricing programs, as well as all nationally-available renewable energy certificates.

There are other ways that you, as an individual, can take a stand against coal. Check the products you buy for labels like Greene-e and WindMadeTM that indicate a company’s commitment to renewable energy sources.

Always and above all, the most significant thing you can do as an individual to reduce the harmful emissions from power plants is to simply reduce your electricity demand. If you know your energy is dirty, use less of it! Unplug unnecessary chargers, set your computer to sleep, and watch Jersey Shore reruns together with your friends instead of separately (this also has the wonderful side-effect of making you feel less ashamed of your love for the train wreck known as Snooki).

Reaching for renewables,

The GreenMan

Have a question about the environment or how to go green in your personal life? Wondering about the ethics of dating someone who drives a Hummer? Curious about eco-friendly purchasing options? The GreenMan will be here every other week to answer your questions: email [email protected]