“Mercury is one of the most toxic substances on earth. Only 1/70th of a teaspoon falling into a 25-acre lake could contaminate its fish to the point that they are unsafe to eat.”
Clean Air Council
You come home after a hard day’s work, flip on the lights, and turn on some music or the news. You’re not contemplating the harm these simple activities have caused—to yourself, to others, and to the environment.
It’s ironic that the same structures that create energy are also responsible for sapping energy and life from all living organisms. Power plants are the largest industrial source of this country’s air pollution and plants built prior to 1977 are not required to meet current emissions standards. Harmful emissions include nitrogen oxide (NOX), the main ingredient in smog/ozone; sulfur dioxide (SO2), the leading cause of acid rain; mercury; and toxic chemicals.
“People, in general, don’t make the ‘connection’ between their electricity, the coal-fired generation plants that produce it and pollution,” says Ann Jones Gerace, executive director of Conservation Consultants, Inc. (CCI), a Pittsburgh-based non-profit specializing in energy efficiency, environmental education, and sustainable urban redevelopment.
But, Pennsylvania’s air pollution problem is one of the worst in the country, and the state has already claimed top “honors” for the worst acid rain problem and the worst mercury pollution in the United States.
Jeanne Clark is the Pennsylvania media coordinator for the Safe Energy Communications Council and Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture), a new environmental organization. “If the two dirtiest power plants in Pennsylvania—Keystone and Homer City—were closed, it would be the equivalent of removing nearly two million cars from the road,” she says. “Plus, the mercury going into the land and water from these two plants alone is devastating. Mercury is a heavy metal that is very toxic and volatile. In the aquatic environment it changes into methyl mercury, which accumulates in fish and the people who eat them. Small amounts ingested by humans—children and pregnant women are especially susceptible—can cause nervous system disorders.”
That’s some of the bad news. The good news is, this problem has many potential solutions. Alternative forms of energy exist, others are being developed, and energy-efficient practices can cut emissions from even the deadliest of power plants.
“Different sources of power include utilizing the earth’s sustainable energy sources—wind, water, geothermal, and sun,” says Ann. “You can also harness energy by capturing methane gas from landfills. In my mind, alternative energies are ways of producing power that are more environmentally responsible. They produce far less pollution than fossil fuels and nuclear energy.
“CCI recently completed the first statewide wind resource assessment for Pennsylvania. We found several viable sites for utility grade wind generation. The southwest and northeast regions are now considered to be the best for wind energy production. Several developers are now in Pennsylvania securing land for further testing and the construction of the largest wind farm east of the Mississippi. Those sites could definitely produce enough electricity to make their operation cost-effective.”
Both Jeanne and Ann agree that fuel cells will be one of the future “winners” in power generation. They require only a small amount of natural gas to operate and their cutting edge technology can provide both heat and electricity in a building.
“The cells are personal power,” Jeanne says, “and it’s going to become more and more feasible for individuals to have them, along with solar panels, in their own homes.”
Since electric choice is now available to all residents in Pennsylvania, it is important for consumers and businesses alike to select a green-e certified provider and to incorporate energy-saving techniques. This preference would send a message to all electricity providers that consumers desire a healthier, cleaner environment.