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Clean energy not just about climate change, but also cleaning up air pollution


As the push for clean energy continues to take the focus in politics, technological innovation, and energy markets, the first reason for such a transformation away from fossil fuels is rightfully the pending climate change crisis. Burning coal, oil, and natural gas all release greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane that scientists agree is at least partially responsible for increasing temperatures across the globe. As we all know by now, if we don't put a stop to this release of greenhouse gases and temperature increases, the results can and will be catastrophic across the globe. 

However, there's a more locally critical reason why switching from fossil fuels to clean energy sources is so vital-- and that's because the effects aren't just of greenhouse gas but for air pollution that provides environmental and public health hazards. These effects are more regional, that is the burning of coal in one city or state will be harmful to those in that region and won't affect people across the globe or even country, but these direct dangers are just as real and important of a reason to convert to a clean energy mix as quickly as possible. The discussion around climate, again, is of course critically important and even an existential discussion-- but it's also important not to let the pure air pollution be forgotten. With that in mind, a couple of great articles were written in the last week or two that highlight these issues in an important way that prompted me to share with Energy Central:


After Pollution Crisis, Puerto Rico to Eliminate All Coal Power Next Year

A great example of the multi-purposes to the clean energy transition is in island communities like Puerto Rico. After the devastating hurricane season of 2017 left the island without power for months, a hurricane season potentially exacerbated in scale due to the effects of climate change, the push to build out a flexible grid system reliant on distributed renewable energy sources and not reliant on imported fossil fuels came to a head. This article, though, outlines that the new push to get Puerto Rico completely off coal isn't just motivated by climate, but also because of the issues with pollution. The coal plant that's currently responsible for 17% of Puerto Rico's electricity "was shown to have dumped tons of toxic coal ash across fourteen municipalities across the island. Due to the lax way that it was disposed of, the ash found its way in the water systems, reduced air quality and increased overall pollution and health risks." These reasons are at the forefront of Puerto Rico's current clean energy transition. 

Graffiti seen on a wall reads "Puerto Rico free of [coal] ash... Who Is Killing Us ?" near a landfill where coal waste is deposited in Tallaboa, Penuelas, Puerto Rico. For longer than most can remember, Puerto Ricans have paid some of the highest energy costs in the U.S. to a notoriously unreliable utility that neglected their grid for years and subjected local people to highly polluting toxins.


Colorado lets oil and gas companies pollute for 90 days without federally required permits that limit emissions

In the Western United States, the pollution coming from the fossil fuel industry came to the light in questioning whether a loophole built in for the oil and gas industry in Colorado was violating the federal Clean Air Act.  As U.S. Rep Diana DeGette describes in this article, "It is a loophole that allows pollution at some of the times when the pollution is the most extreme." The whole article is worth a read, as it highlights the negative effects felt from such pollution and the political landscape that's led to this point. 


Asia's coal addition puts chokehold on its air-polluted cities

Sadly, no conversation about the air pollution from dirty fuel sources is complete without examining how the rapidly industrializing countries in Asia-- particularly China-- are relying on coal to power their growth in a way that's leading to smog-filled cities and widespread public health issues. According to this article, "nine out of 10 people breathe polluted air...a problem that impacts more cities in Asia than anywhere else in the world. Burning fossil fuels is a large contributor to air pollution, which kills about 7 million people prematurely each year. 


Coal causes more than just air issues, with another pollution crisis at the forefront of the industry coming in toxic coal ash ponds that are harming the soil and various water supplies across the United States. So again, the conversation seems to start with climate change-- and rightfully so-- but many of these prevalent issues across the country and the world demonstrate that they shouldn't just end there, and pollution needs to be considered as a large reason to move away from fossil fuels as well. 


Matt Chester's picture

Thank Matt for the Post!

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