Cleantech
Utility Customers Affected by Irma, Harvey Unknowingly Supporting Dirty Energy

In the northwestern city where I live, when you walk out the door, the first thing you see is smoke. It blankets trees and houses, it hangs thick in the air, it covers the foothills, it seeps out from between buildings; it hangs, illuminated by streetlights at night. The shroud of smoke over the sun means less people are enjoying the great outdoors, but there’s one thing that hasn’t changed: People are still driving to work. Regardless of how much air pollution we have to contend with, the economy must go on. Yet this same economy is contributing to climate change.

As Michelle Nijhuis recently pointed out in The New Yorker: “Climate change, combined with a century of overenthusiastic fire suppression and the resulting buildup of fuel, has turned the once-occasional emergency of wildfire into a chronic condition.” In the Northwest United States, wildfire seasons are lasting longer and getting more intense. In part, climate change here is leading to dryer, deadlier summers.

Meanwhile, as I write this, extreme weather systems such as tropical storm Harvey and Hurricane Irma (a category 4 storm) have been taking lives and stopping business as usual in the Southeastern US and Caribbean. Higher water surface temperatures, as well as higher atmospheric temperatures, are feeding the intensity of these storms.

According to the University of Nevada Reno, climate change is becoming a public health crisis. Average annual global temperatures have increased 0.85 degrees Celsius since 1850. “There’s a very tight loop — as surface temperatures of the oceans warm up, the immediate response is more water vapor in the atmosphere. We’re in a system inherently capable of producing more floods,” says Dr. Kenneth Kunkel of the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites. When disasters the magnitude of Irma, Harvey and the approaching Hurricane Maria strike, the resulting flooding and devastation to infrastructure create further devastation to the local economies.

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But some players tend to benefit from the chaos. There’s a dirty secret at the heart of certain industries that want you to ignore the impacts of climate change: Your dollar funds their efforts. Unsuspecting electricity customers are unwittingly funding anti-clean energy groups. One of these groups is the Edison Electric Institute (EEI). In 2015, EEI’s budget was $90 million, the highest it’s been in decades. EEI and other political organizations of its ilk are basically lobbying for the fracking and utilities industries, in addition to proposing bailouts for nuclear power plants and spreading misinformation about climate change.

For some Florida residents, the irony is palpable. Irma, which may have been exacerbated by climate change, has just finished flooding the northeast corner of the state, and is devastating the Florida Keys. Florida Power & Light’s customers will fork out $2.4 million to EEI in 2018, and the customers won’t know about it unless they read documents such as the Paying for Utility Politics report by the Energy and Policy Institute, which identifies itself as “a watchdog organization working to expose attacks on renewable energy and counter misinformation by fossil fuel and utility interests.”

To corroborate the Energy and Policy Institute’s findings on EEI, Sourcewatch reports that EEI has attempted to stunt the growth of residential solar power systems. EEI also lobbied against a bill that would have required utilities to get 15 percent of energy from renewable sources and opposed the Clean Water Restoration Act. EEI collects money from utilities ratepayers nationwide.

Utilities companies in Texas and Florida help pay for EEI’s lobbying efforts. But it would be tough to bring up this issue to a victim of flooding when all they want after the disaster is a return to normality. Fortunately, the sheer practicality of solar can — and has — helped those affected by Harvey and Irma.

Forbes contributor and Floridian Anthony Karcz, writing before Irma touched down in Florida, urges people to use solar power. He details devices by Goal Zero, a company that makes electronics to pair with solar panels, which provided $1 million in power products to victims of Harvey. Among these, the Torch 250 flashlight can charge your phone, and you can charge the flashlight through a built-in solar panel. Goal Zero’s Venture 70 charger is completely waterproof — definitely an asset for those still dealing with flooding — and it automatically stops charging once phone batteries are full.

While the grid is unreliable in areas struck by extreme natural disasters, you can count on solar when the sun shines — and continued improvement in energy storage solutions takes over when it doesn’t. Increasingly, as the sun continues to heat the globe, we’re going to have to wake up to the potentially harmful role of outdated sources of energy, and more fully embrace renewables such as solar to help us recover from impending disasters from climate change.

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