Are You An Environmentalist Using Coal Energy? How To Be Green—Even On The Grid

December 27, 2018


The year I became vegan, I immediately experienced a deep sense of accomplishment that I was contributing in a small way to combat climate change and reduce my carbon footprint.

That is until I turned on my hallway light.

As a new condo-owner in Colorado, I’m unfortunately connected to our local electrical grid, which means that much of my power flowing into the laptop I am writing this article on, comes from fossil fuels. And until I can convince my Home-Owner’s Association to transition to solar, I, unfortunately, remain a fossil fuel end-user.

I’m an environmental lawyer, and my work focuses chiefly on combatting the source of the majority of our energy in the United States—coal. As you can imagine, I am experiencing tension between being an environmentalist and having a refrigerator (teeming with fruit, veggies, and vegan treats, mind you) almost entirely powered by fossil fuels. As I wade through this conundrum and work on lessening my own dependence on coal-fired energy, I want to guild you with the basics related to fossil fuels and energy.

The more you know, the more you can engage to shift your electricity-use to line up with your values; those same values that, perhaps, guided you to a plant-based life.


Coal-fired power plants supply almost 40% of our electricity across the United States, the largest share of any single energy source. Burning coal for electricity emits large quantities of dangerous air pollution, posing grave risks to human health and our environment.

When coal is burned, it releases a number of airborne toxins and pollutants. These emissions include mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, and various other heavy metals. Health impacts from this pollution can range from asthma to brain damage, heart problems, cancer, neurological disorders, and premature death. The mercury that contaminates our fresh- and saltwater fish populations comes largely from coal-fired power plants. Mercury can harm brain development and is particularly risky for pregnant women and children.

Every year, 36,000 Americans die as a result of air pollution from coal-fired power plants.

It may be difficult to determine, but it could be that your great-uncle’s heart attack last year was caused in part by pollution in our air.

Although limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have helped prevent some of these emissions, many coal-fired power plants don’t have the necessary pollution controls installed. The future of these protections remains unclear.

Climate Change

Burning fossil fuels for electricity production is the single largest contributor to climate change. Currently, one-third of all global carbon dioxide emissions come from burning coal. Additionally, scientists are increasingly clear that in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to leave 80 percent of carbon deposits, such as coal, in the ground.

Here’s a brief primer on climate change: Today’s warming is primarily caused by humans putting too much carbon in the atmosphere when we burn coal, oil, gas, or cut down forests. Chemically, coal is mostly carbon, which, when burned, reacts with oxygen in the air to produce carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas. Global warming is primarily a problem of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. CO2 puts us at the greatest risk of irreversible changes if it continues to accumulate unabated in the atmosphere. We know human activities are driving the increase in CO2 concentrations because atmospheric CO2 contains information about its source, like a map. Scientists can determine how much CO2 comes from natural sources, and how much comes from burning coal and other fossil fuels because carbon from fossil fuels has a distinct signature and appears differently than carbon from natural sources. While the overall amount of CO2 has increased over the years, the amount of fossil fuel carbon has increased, while the amount of natural carbon has decreased. This information tells us that fossil fuel emissions are the largest contributor to atmospheric CO2, and they are coming from us.

Consequences of global warming include drought, sea level rise, flooding, extreme weather, and species loss. The severity of those impacts is tied directly to the amount of carbon dioxide we release, including from coal plants. In the United States, coal accounts for roughly one-quarter of all energy-related carbon emissions. The more carbon we release into the atmosphere, the bleaker our future on this planet becomes. Experts have even tied climate-change to more war and conflict!

Advocating for a Transition to Renewables

There are ways you can fight back against fossil fuel use:

  • Call for government and corporate decision-makers to reduce the threat of global warming by implementing effective national and regional climate policies.
  • If you’re in a coal-producing area: Montana, Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, etc., involve your local community to push against coal companies’ decisions to expand existing mines.
  • Petition your local government, or even your HOA to transform your energy system to one that is cleaner and less dependent on coal and fossil fuels.
  • If you have money but not time, support a clean-energy company or technology.
  • Vote, join political organizations, participate in direct action, strike, support pro-climate candidates and call our representatives, give to nonprofits, and volunteer.
  • Purchase an electric vehicle and ensure your utility is providing non-carbon electricity.
  • Buy only local food, join a community renewable energy project, buy solar panels, or invest in non-carbon energy companies.
  • Support organizations like WildEarth Guardians, in speaking out against the Trump Administration’s plans to put coal on life support.

In order to make these changes, we have to learn a lot of new ideas, give up notions we thought we understood, and pour our time into mastering a new knowledge or skill. Whether this means engaging in new writing, advocacy, or understanding how the electric grid works, it’s time to get uncomfortable. In doing so, we must house ideas of both rage and hope. You may find that these challenges and the subsequent transition is very similar to the transition to compassionate eating. In the end, sharing our resources in a responsible way is an act of love.

How do you feel about unwittingly participating in coal? 



Photo: WildEarth Guardians

Shannon Hughes is an environmental lawyer with a focus on climate change and energy. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and dog but is originally from Chicago and considers the city her first love. When she’s not fighting for the environment, she can be found hiking, playing soccer, running, going to concerts, or trying out new vegan recipes.


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