Could Warning Labels on Power Bills Help Stem Coal?

The drive to stem the use of coal for power production in the U.S. has gained considerable traction over the past decade. According to some sources, coal power holds the title of the single largest source of air pollution in the country while its supply chain contaminates every resource that it touches. Removing coal from our energy portfolio is one of the greatest sustainability milestones that Americans could hope to achieve, but the goal might benefit from a simple tactic that brings the core issues closer, or rather into, the homes of consumers. To deter the use of coal power we may need to reach for a blunter instrument.

For most Americans, the concept of “power” is little more than a number that comes in the mail. The distance between the act of power production and the resulting charge on an electrical bill is a key ingredient to how energy companies keep the disturbing realities of our grid outside the focus of their own consumers. Closing that gap could be as easy as bringing that information front and center with warning labels that remind the consumer exactly what their dollars are buying. Slapped on the front of envelopes or next to the amount due, the reoccurring reminder could help educate people of the repercussions of their energy use and either promote increased efficiency or the choice to make the easy switch to paying for greener power.

The fight against coal power has intensified in the new millennium and its validity goes far beyond just climate change. While the mining, transporting and burning of coal does release vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the myriad of other things that come with it (carbon monoxide, sulfur dixoide,  nitrogen oxides, mercury) end up tipping the scales away from holistic viability. Organizations like the Sierra Club have placed stemming coal power among their top priorities (and a recent recipient of a $50 million check from NYC Major Bloomberg’s Philanthropy arm should add fuel to the fire). Their site keenly offers an updated list of all the coal plants in the pipeline across the country including those that have made it to operation and those that have managed to be canceled. Despite the marginal success of the anti-coal camp (153 cancelled compared to 43 active) when it comes to coal generation and the levels of pollution that come from its entire lifecycle, time is always of the essence. Though our capacity of renewable power generation may have surpassed nuclear, we are a long way from catching up to coal.

WARNING: This hurts you!

The addition of warning labels to dangerous consumer products is not new with the idea that giving people information once is markedly less effective than directly pairing information with the act in question. The most well known example may be cigarettes that have had some form of warning directly relating to the health of the buyer since the 1960’s. In an effort to deter Americans from smoking the warning labels have escalated in prominence by the detail of their message or the required location on packs and advertisements—and rightly so. With 440,000 American lives every year, smoking is largely considered to be largest, preventable source of death in the country. More recently, the fight against obesity is looking to similar tactics in places like New York City that require calorie counts to be displayed on menu signage next to products in many restaurants. It might be possible for a similar path to help us wipe coal out of our electric grid.

Looking at the Consolidated Edison (Con Ed) bill that we get in the mail, there is plenty of open real estate that could make for a prime spot to educate consumers on how their specific usage contributes to the larger picture.

Even if a growing number of people know that coal comprises a large portion of the nation’s electricity portfolio, the scale of the country allows it to remain a detached concept to most consumers. It would be easy to pair a bill with updated information for how much power is coming from dirty energy sources on the household scale. Like cigarette labels and calorie counts, the goal is to get consumers to take a moment of pause by bringing the results of their potential actions closer to the forefront. In this case, it would also be easy to provide them with alternatives.

Does Labeling Work?

A fair question would be whether or not all of the added information actually has an effect on the buying patterns of consumers. When it comes to cigarettes, the answer continually seems to be yes. It has taken some time and a little refinement of the message, but studies show that warning labels have resulted in lower smoking rates in multiple countries. In the food arena, the jury is still out. According to a study conducted by the NYU School of Medicine, calorie labeling in New York City gained marginal notice from consumers but did little to ultimately influence their buying patterns of high calorie foods at fast food establishments. To be fair though, not only did the study only include 427 residents, but the entire practice is relatively new having been enacted in New York in 2008. Reaching smokers took a bit longer than three years.

Studies have also shown that picture-based labels have vastly more influence over respondents than merely text warnings.  Commenting on the new graphic-based labels for cigarette warnings, one article in Discovery News cites that:

“After Thailand switched to graphic labels in 2005, for example, the project found that the percentage of smokers who reported thinking about health risks because of the warnings went up from about 35 percent to 55 percent. The percentage of smokers who said that the warnings made them more likely to quit rose from 31 percent to 46 percent.”

Returning back to our coal power problem, there is no reason we could not sweeten the deal with some imagery in order to convey the gravity of the issue. For this we could go into the bill itself and position some information right next to the amount of money being requested—letting there be no mistake of how their money is being spent.

This would also be a great time to offer a cleaner option. Many utilities offer the opportunity for purchasing greener power, either from wind or solar, for a small premium. Here in New York City, Con Ed Solutions offers two sustainable power options: “Green” and “Wind”. Green offers the breakdown of 65% hydroelectric and 35% wind, where as the wind option guarantees the full 100%. When it comes to the upcharge, the plans add 1 cent and 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour respectively. For the average American family at 12,000 kwh a year, that is about $10 or $25 a month.

How much of a difference would that make? Well the Con Ed of New York has about 3 million customers. If everyone decided to purchase wind power then it would generate $900 million in capital to build more wind capacity. Looking at the new Shepard’s Flat wind farm as a benchmark, GE was producing 2.5 MW wind turbines for about $1.65 million a piece. That would mean Con Ed could build 1,300 MW of wind capacity a year, or doubling the state’s existing capacity (or another 325,000 homes annually). While coal companies may be in staunch opposition to such an idea, Con Edison should not really care as they should be able to get more revenue directly in line to construct more sustainable, long term assets.

Before writing off Americans as apathetic, we should try making it as easy as possible to make a holistically better decision. Providing convenient information could be one of the easiest ways and our power grid is a great place to start.

Image Credit: ,