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Energy and the Environment

The following is the 12th in a series of Odessa File columns from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schuyler County relating to ongoing CCE educational activities and offerings.

By Phil Cherry
Executive Director
Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schuyler County

Have you seen the pictures? The City of Los Angeles without the smog? The City of New York ... the City of Chicago? Other cities around the U.S. and the world? The differences are stark, and a testament to the impacts auto emissions have on our air quality.

Photos below show Los Angeles before and after the coronavirus shutdown in late March 2020. Source: Business Insider

It’s no accident that reduced cars on the road has led to cleaner air quality. Cars and light trucks emit a host of chemicals from the burning of gasoline and diesel, most notably smog-forming compounds such as nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These are not greenhouse gases that are impacting our planet’s climate but rather more “traditional” pollutants that lead to the formation of smog. Smog is an old term dating back to the early 1900s when smoke from coal-fired heating units combined with fog to give that brown haze to air. The term has continued to be used today to describe poor air quality.

But there are so many other linkages. We use heating oil and natural gas to heat our homes, and coal and natural gas to generate massive amounts of electricity and energy to power our industries. When these fossil fuels are combusted, they produce massive amounts of other pollutants -- pollutants that have historically killed thousands of Americans, and still do. But the story is changing. Thanks to major environmental statutes like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and a host of other environmental statutes passed since the early 1970s, our environment is actually getting better! We still have problems as evidenced by the recent pictures in our cities, and issues with water and air quality, but our environment is far cleaner than it was 50 years ago. That’s the good news. However, our increasing population, increased vehicle miles traveled, and an overall robust economy continue to drive strong demands for energy consumption and significant CO2 emissions.

Today the conversation has shifted to climate change and carbon dioxide (CO2) and other Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Carbon pollution is a serious threat to our planet, our way of life and our species. Let’s consider where our electricity comes from.

While you might think solar energy is a big contributor with all the new solar farms around these days, it actually is not (yet). Much of our electricity still comes from the burning of fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. New York, however, is blessed with abundant hydro-power and nuclear resources and the percentage of power produced by fossil fuels is now below 50% in New York state. Oil used to be used but has largely been phased out due to cost and environmental concerns. Burning a ton of coal in a traditional power plant can release over two tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, not to mention sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and other harmful substances. Natural gas, another fossil fuel, emits about half the CO2 as coal and is considered “cleaner” than coal, but remains a substantial source of GHG emissions, smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions and VOCs. Natural gas extraction also accounts for large methane releases which, in addition to its combustion emissions, contributes significantly to GHG emissions.

Another way to look at emissions in New York State is by societal sector. In this chart, emissions from electricity and heat production are embedded in societal sectors and shows how the contributions of commercial and residential activities to the total GHG emission cannot be ignored, especially if society is to realize massive cuts in GHG emissions in order to meet our climate goals. In New York, the State legislature passed a bill in 2019 that calls for an 85% reduction in GHG emissions from a 1990 baseline by 2050, just 30 years from now.

The bill also calls for 100% renewable electricity by 2030, so we’ll have to make big shifts by then. Everyone can participate in these changes.

Many other states and countries have similar goals, although New York’s goal is among the most ambitious. Our electricity usage and how we heat our homes and businesses is a big factor in battling climate change, and that’s where the activities of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Smart Energy Choices program, NYSERDA and other utility incentive programs come into play. These programs will also impact the electricity sector and are necessary to provide guidance and leadership at the local level in making fuel conversions from technologies such as oil or propane-fired furnaces to cleaner air and ground source heat pumps and by helping low- and moderate-income families reduce their energy burden.

Energy production and use in this country is one of the most significant factors in the health of our planet, and our families. We know what happens when we produce electricity, or drive our cars, or heat our homes -- we create pollution that must be treated or that gets into our environment and harms our water, our air, our health and the planet. It’s important that we act now to reduce those impacts by turning to cleaner, less polluting alternatives. You can help. Check out the Smart Energy Choices website for steps you can take to reduce your fossil fuel energy use and associated pollution, and to learn about how we can help. There are so many incentives and programs out there to help homeowners and businesses reduce their environmental footprint. Walk softly ... save the planet.

Phil Cherry, the Executive Director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schuyler County, also serves as Community Energy Advisor for Schuyler & Steuben Counties for Smart Energy Choices.

Photo in text: Phil Cherry, CCE Schuyler Executive Director (Photo provided)


For the first column in this series, click here.
For the second column in this series, click here.
For the third column in this series, click here.

For the fourth column in this series, click here.
For the fifth column in this series, click here.
For the sixth column in this series, click here.
For the seventh column in this series, click here.
For the eighth column in this series, click here.
For the ninth column in this series, click here.
For the 10th column in this series, click here.
For the 11th column in this series, click here.


© The Odessa File 2020
Charles Haeffner
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869