Turn out the lights! Zero waste and electricity

Using less electricity is a pretty common way to be 'green' and save money at the same time. I spent high school and college studying biology and chemistry, and my only school memories of electricity are from the 4th grade. Perhaps I am particularly ignorant, but I didn't know the impact of electricity use on CO2 emissions and exactly how most American electricity is sourced.

Natural gas and coal account for 62% of the energy sources for American power plants. Nuclear energy makes up about 20% of energy production for the US. That means about 80% of the electricity we use comes from non-renewable resources. That in itself brings up a host of problems. On the bright side, in 2017 “a variety of renewable energy sources are [also] used to generate electricity and were the source of about 17% of total U.S. electricity generation”.

This is where I’ll try to answer the question of why this matters. To begin with, each non-renewable energy source has by-products.

Electricity generation is one of the leading sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Power plants that burn fossil fuels or materials made from fossil fuels, and some geothermal power plants, are the sources of nearly 40% of total U.S. energy-related CO2.
— U.S. Energy Information Administration

Greenhouse gases, most famously carbon dioxide (CO2), aren’t good for the earth when there are too many of them in the atmosphere. Simply put, these gases contribute to rising temperatures that can cause extreme weather, drought, and climate change.

I for one don’t plan on forgoing electricity anytime soon. While I’ve had the privilege to live in a home with solar power, most of us don’t, and solar power only accounted for about 1% of US energy for 2017. What we can do now is consume electricity consciously.

What does this have to do with zero waste?

Good question. Hopefully by now you’ve noticed that zero waste isn’t simply about the physical garbage we create, although that is an excellent way to begin considering our consumption. To be honest, not having to pay for a trash service isn’t enough motivation to live a zero waste life for anyone I’ve ever spoken to. Protecting our earth (and those who suffer even without excess consumption) is one of the most compelling reasons to have a lighter footprint on this earth. Using less electricity is a personal change you can make right now to reduce your emissions and contribute to efforts to slow climate change.

In 2016, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 10,766 kilowatthours (kWh), an average of 897 kWh per month.
— U.S. Energy Information Administration

That means that every month, households send into the atmosphere 946.96 lbs of CO2 using electricity from natural gas and 1,856.79 lbs of CO2 using coal powered electricity. Clearly, electricity coming from power plants with coal results in much more CO2. It’s equivalent to driving 1,051 miles and 2,065 miles respectively. That’s like driving from New York City to Tampa, or New York City to Salt Lake City once a month.

Human activities—mostly burning of coal and other fossil fuels, but also cement production, deforestation and other landscape changes—emitted roughly 40 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2015. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, more than 2,000 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide have been added to the atmosphere by human activities.
— Which emits more carbon dioxide: volcanoes or human activities?, climate.gov

Since the industrial revolution CO2 emissions have risen over 35%, and it’s not going down. The greater problem is not solely personal. Changing ourselves will not change the system and energy sources we depend upon, but neither will continuing the way you already are.

Popular energy sources like coal and fossil fuels are huge contributors to CO2 emissions that are causing climate change. The simplest thing we can do is use less (reduce). Remember, zero waste is bigger than what fits in a mason jar. Zero waste is a powerful call to action to reduce our impact on this earth, be it pollution, climate change, or the human impact of our consumption.

How do you prevent electricity waste in the home?