ACT:  Getting Off Fossil Fuels, One Conversation at a Time

One of the most effective things you can do to reduce greenhouse gas emisisons is to invite your local city or town council member out for a cup of coffee. While sipping a mug of your local brew, explain the percentage of the local utility’s electricity coming from fossil fuels, especially coal.  Then engage her or him in some strategizing over how to reduce that amount.

City council people are more accessible to us than any other government legislator, and they play a role in where we get our electricity, including making stipulations to the electricity company about re-upping their contracts in the future.  In a system where the incentives don’t align like they should and many utilities accrue more profit from rising prices and investment in fossil fuel infrastructure than “least cost” renewables.

The transition is typically slow, although it wasn’t in the Republican stronghold of Georgetown, Texas.  There, the town of 60,000 people let its electricity contract expire in 2012 and the city invested in cheaper solar and wind.  This freed the town from fossil fuel supplies and locked in low costs for 20 years, in contrast to the average 7.75% by which coal costs have been rising annually, nationwide, in recent years.

The largest part of our carbon emissions and contribution to the greenhouse gases that will be in the atmosphere for hundreds of years (even more than 1000 years for over 20% of the CO2 emitted today) is typically from the electricity that powers our homes{, lives,} and most of our places of work.  Consequently, changing the dirty portion of our electricity sources is often the biggest difference we can make, individually and in our communities.   If we want to simplify and prioritize by largest chunks (a tried and true quality improvement method) and “bang for the buck” with regard to effort:

  1. Decarbonize electricity (usually provided by utilities on a contract or franchise basis to cities)
  2. Decarbonize transportation (switch to electric transport)
  3. Everything else (all those other good things to do)

Don’t get me wrong.  Do them all if you can, but also realize where the effect is big and action is critical.  Sustainability practice, planning, and what organizations can do has comprised a big portion of my business for the past 15 years, along with government process improvement.  All those other process improvement gains have been my bread and butter.  But the largest portion of our impact tends to come from our electricity and ongoing dependence on fossil fuels there. This includes the coal that Pope Francis advises we get off first, along with fossil fuels, “without delay.”  What we’ve already dumped into our common atmosphere makes a key  part of our “ecological debt”; developed nations have already used up more than our share of space there and so we need to shift off of fossil fuels the fastest.

Calculated GHG Emissions for a City in Colorado.  The blue is electricity.  The red dotted line is the Kyoto target.  Clearly, GHG emissions from fossil fuels for electricity alone nearly reach this limit.

Boulder GHG

What can or should we do to get off of fossil fuels?  The Pope recommends action at all levels.  The Global Catholic Climate Movement, the Pope, and over 100 countries are calling for action to ensure warming will not rise above 1.5 C. and Catholic students around the world are lobbying for divestment by universities, individuals, and institutions of all sorts.  You can try out an electric car, buy one used for $10K or new for $20K in some states (this is for a Nissan Leaf) and stop making trips to the gas station.  We can try to gain the attention of our legislators at the state or federal level, which is increasingly difficult when so much of their time and attention goes to big contributors (Pope Francis calls out corruption and lack of attention to the common good).  We can try to pass state by state referenda overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.  We can pay attention to our own denial and what we’d rather overlook, often plane flights, especially long ones.


Now that solar and wind are becoming cheaper than new coal or natural gas powered plants (not to mention using vastly less water), the cost-effectiveness of solar and wind in relation to unhealthy and morally suspect fossil fuels just continues to increase.  Some cities and utilities are still paying off old investment decisions, but it is intuitively clear to most, and typically  clear in graphs and with the utilities’ own data, that it is cheaper and better to stop throwing money at new coal plants or keeping old ones running.  With coal companies in dire straits trying to reach more difficult and expensive to access deposits, and the blanket of heat-trapping pollution coal spreads, existing coal plants are unlikely to be able to operate for their forecasted lives, as it is.

Asking your council member to have a cup of coffee and talking about our electricity mix and the agreement the city has with the utility is one of the most concrete and effective ways to take action to diminish the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere.  Even if we are able to get photovoltaic panels (and would like to think the utility is reducing output by that amount), we always have a utility between our usage and overall energy sources used and emissions.  Council members are often sympathetic to citizens’ concerns about sustainability, regular cost increases with fossil fuels, and the long-term reliability of fossil sources anyway.  It’s up to each of us to figure out how to do what we can, with the time we have, with people who will listen, with what we can influence.  It might just be having that conversation over a cup of coffee, and starting your utility on the path to renewable energy.

Arguably, anyone can come up with 15 minutes a week, for something important, for better breathing and better lives for our neighbors – to live in better alignment with our core values.  Letters from municipalities to utilities and public utilities commissions can address three “C’s”:  climate, cost and the affordability of renewables, and coal supply concerns and grid reliability in just a page, expressing our concerns and expectations.

States coal

In sum, electricity is often the largest source of a community’s GHG emissions and we should begin taking responsibility for these emissions, as Pope Francis urges us.  We can start by identifying our electrical provider and how much we depend on coal and other fossils.  Others can help as you begin to prepare a set of facts and handouts for your community and start educating elected officials about the risks, economically, to reliability, and to “our common home.”  We can support each other in advocating for lower carbon intensity electricity where we have higher degrees of influence, on the municipal level.  Ask your city council person to have coffee, and ask them to write a letter to your utility, asking for decarbonization sooner rather than later.

Contact [email protected] for info, slides, sample letters, etc. You can also check your state name as shown[add your state here, no brackets]/ and then click on Table 5 to see electric power generation by primary energy source in your state.