Once energy became abundantly available, the way we humans think about our daily lives changed radically. Electric appliances freed us from heating our homes, building fires to cook, sewing and washing clothes. For more than a century, we in the developed world have considered electricity a basic necessity—just like food, water and shelter. We build our society with the expectation that electricity will be available 24/7 to power smelters, factories, refrigerators, air conditioners, washing machines, televisions, mobile phones, tablets and Internet access.
Because of new technologies like 5G networks and electric vehicles and increased videoconferencing for school, work and telemedicine, governments and utilities are planning new power plants to meet increased electricity demands.
I figure I need to clarify my assumptions and expectations around electricity. Surely everyone wants it delivered safely, affordably, and reliably (without interruption). Ecologists want electricity delivered with minimal impact to ecosystems and minimal greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Shareholders (seeking pensions and funds for their children's education) want utilities to make profits.
Alas, these players have conflicting interests. Before policymakers finalize budgets, shouldn’t every electricity user learn:
- How do utilities deliver electricity safely and reliably? What are utilities’ biggest challenges? How do utilities make profits?
- What percentage of an electric bill is dedicated to maintaining infrastructure? What are electricity’s main sources of fuel? What are the ecological consequences of each fuel source?
- Does most energy go to manufacturing, households, businesses or transportation?
An electric utility’s responsibilities
First things first: improperly delivered electricity can cause death, fire and electrocution. It can damage equipment and cause power outages.
To deliver electricity safely and reliably, a utility maintains:
- voltage control. Like engineers who monitor water’s steady pressure to prevent damage to pipes while delivering clean water to customers and returning dirty water to sewage treatment, electrical engineers monitor voltage control—pressure—while providing electricity.
- reliability. Any wire or transformer that carries electric current can heat up, causing loss of power. Warm weather and wildfires can heat equipment. Wind can knock trees into powerlines. Utilities monitor weather and keep power lines, transformers and meters well maintained to deliver power reliably and prevent fire.
- efficiency. You know how stopping and starting a bicycle or a car takes more energy than smooth riding? Electricity works the same way. For efficiency, a utility must balance high-demand daytime “loads” with less-demanding night-time and weekend loads. Reducing loss of heat (and power) from power lines and transformers also increases efficiency.
- frequency control. In alternating current electricity, frequency indicates the balance between power generation, capacity and demand. Elevated frequency (caused by power input exceeding customers’ power consumption) can damage electronics and appliances. Low frequency (caused by insufficient reserves of power) can lead to power outages. (Power reserves come either from coal, natural gas, nuclear power, geothermal, solar, wind or biomass.).
Here’s another obligation: unless a home is completely off-grid (i.e. has a solar PV system and sufficient batteries to store power for nights and cloudy days), the utility must maintain infrastructure to it so that residents can receive electricity whenever they flick a switch.
About two-thirds of an electric bill goes to maintaining infrastructure and electricians who can restore power in an emergency. About one third pays for electricity.1
Where does most energy go?
Electricity is one form of energy. Most energy goes to manufacturing—to extracting, smelting and refining raw materials, manufacturing chemicals, assembling parts, transporting materials internationally between factories; to assembling, packaging and shipping products. In 2018 (before Covid), 32.61% of the U.S.’s total energy use went to industry; transportation consumed 28.30%; residences consumed 21.64%, and commercial enterprises used 18.61%.
That same year, the U.S. consumed 4300 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. Most of this electricity went to residential, then commercial, then industrial use. A minimal amount went to transportation—since most transportation is powered by oil, not electricity.
For fuel, U.S. electric utilities depend on natural gas (usually from fracking), coal, nuclear power, hydropower (dams), solar, wind and/or geothermal power. Solar and wind systems (which provide intermittent power) depend on battery storage. They do not require a turbine/generator. The other fuels use a turbine generator that converts the fuel into electrical energy.
How does a utility make a profit?
Utilities profit primarily by buying new equipment (“smart” meters, power lines, transformers), charging ratepayers interest on this investment and paying less taxes as the equipment depreciates over time. The higher the investment risk, the higher the rate of return. The rate of return decreases each year. Once the rate of return reaches zero, the utility operates and maintains the equipment with no profit.
When investors own a utility, profits may take priority over ecological and climate impacts and even safety. When a utility is publicly owned, it may be easier to choose the infrastructure that reduces CO2 emissions.2For any municipality to purchase its own utility requires federal financial aid.
Advantages and disadvantages of different kinds of fuel
If we recognize cradle-to-cradle impacts, then every fuel source has harmful ecological consequences.3 No fuel source can be called “zero-emissions,” “carbon-neutral” or “clean.” Some fuel sources may be better suited for running smelters and factories.
With a coal-powered plant, a utility can keep stockpiles of coal available for months and manage demand, voltage control and frequency control efficiently. However, coal mining removes mountaintops. Coal-powered plants emit the most CO2 and cause acid rain.
A natural gas pipeline to the utility’s generator also allows efficient management of demand, voltage and frequency control. But fracking for natural gas ravages waterways and ecosystems. Burning natural gas generates CO2.
Nuclear power plants deliver electricity efficiently and do not emit greenhouse gases while they operate. However, every ton of manufactured cement (a key ingredient in concrete) for nuclear plants generates one ton of CO2. During routine operations, nuclear plants emit radiation shown to increase leukemia in children living nearby. When nuclear plants meltdown (i.e. Chernobyl and Fukushima), they wreak environmental and public health havoc for generations.4
Hydropower (dams) can provide steady, reliable electricity—unless the climate has drought. Constructing a dam requires lots of concrete and disrupts the river and nearby ecosystems.5,6
Solar photovoltaic (PV) systems emit no greenhouse gases during operation. However, manufacturing them is energy-intensive and generates greenhouse gases.7 Solar panels contain toxic chemicals that can be washed out by rainwater. Concerned Citizens of Fawn Lake, in Virginia, USA estimate that the 1.8 million solar panels at a 6,350-acre solar farm (partly designed to power a proposed Microsoft data center) contain 100,000 pounds of cadmium—which could leak into the community’s groundwater.8 At the end of their usable life, solar panels are hazardous waste. By 2050, about 78 million metric tons of solar panels will be discarded, and we’ll see about six million metric tons of new solar e-waste, annually.9 Because solar PV systems provide intermittent power, they depend on batteries, which are toxic to manufacture and hazardous to discard.10
Wind turbines do not release greenhouse gases during operation. However, wind turbines’ intermittent power makes them battery-dependent. Living near wind turbines can disturb peoples’ health11,12 and devastate rare birds.13 One turbine blade weighs 20,000 pounds (10,000 kilograms) and does not biodegrade.
Geothermal power provides reliable energy by drilling deep into the Earth’s “hot spots” and releasing gases. (Whenever you’ve got heat, you can make electricity.) Geothermal power emits less CO2 than fossil fuels. It also releases noxious gases and polluted water and can harm endangered birds.
Biomass energy comes from burning garbage, wood or manure--which can ravage forests and generate air pollution14.
Naming my perceptions
I do not know how to live for more than a few days without electricity. Nearly one billion people do not have electricity (13% of the global population). I don’t want to harm the Earth. I also don’t want to live in an illusion about my footprint.
Every fuel source has ecological consequences. Maybe “clean” living in an electrified society is not possible. When something is seen as a necessity, it’s hard to argue against it. Asking, “What’s the cleanest possible way to live?” requires learning more about electricity than I ever expected. There’s much I did not cover here, including wiring configurations’ relationship to childhood cancer15, “dirty” electricity’s health effects,16 and smart utility meters. I did not write about professional engineering statutes or public utility commissions, which were both designed to ensure a thorough evaluation of new infrastructure—and prevent hazardous installations.
Some people believe that electric growth can continue sustainably. Some believe that “green growth” is an oxymoron, distracting us from learning to live within our means.
As a ratepayer, I don’t have much control over my utility choices. Could we prioritize? In developed countries, do we build new infrastructure (5G networks, e-vehicle charging stations, new power plants) or make use of the infrastructure and vehicles we already have? How can we reduce our electricity consumption? What’s the most environmentally sound way to deliver electricity to those who don’t have it?
If we live within our ecological and financial means—and feed and shelter everyone alive—can we maintain current levels of consumption? If we can’t do this, then could we teach ourselves to live differently and use less electricity?
1 “Exhibit E to Nevada Assembly Committee on Labor,” Submitted by Shawn M. Elicegui, May 20, 2025, on behalf of NV Energy.
2 Jancovici, Jean-Marc, “Éléments de base sur l’énergie au XXIe siècle,” The Shift Project. See Chapter 35, “Bien plus important : le coût de l’argent (Much more important: the cost of money).”
3 Jancovici, Jean-Marc, “Éléments de base sur l’énergie au XXIe siècle,” The Shift Project. See Chapter 36, “CO2 or not CO2: Il faut compter… (CO2 or not CO2: You have to count).”
4 Gofman, John W., PhD, MD, Poisoned Power: The Case Against Nuclear Power Plants Before and After Three Mile Island, Rodale, 1979.
5 Fitz, Don, Dammed Good Questions about the Green New Deal, Local Futures, Nov. 2019.
6 Wetz, Adam, How Kenya's Push for Development is Threatening Its Famed Wild Lands, April 24, 2019.
7 Troszak, Thomas A., Why Do We Burn Coal and Trees for Solar Panels?. See also Planet of the Humans, Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore’s 2020 documentary.
8 Shellenberger, Michael, If Solar Panels are So Clean, Why Do They Produce So Much Toxic Waste? Forbes, May 23, 2018.
9 Tao, Meng, et al, Major challenges and opportunities in silicon solar module recycling, 22 July 2020, Wiley Online Library.
10 Martin, Calvin Luther, PhD, BESS Bombs: The Huge explosive toxic batteries the wind and solar companies are sneaking into your backyard.
11 Pierpont, Nina, MD, PhD, Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Report on a Natural Experiment, K-Selected Books, 2009.
12 See Laura Israel’s 2010 documentary, Windfall.
13 Manville, Albert M., II, PhD, Bird Strikes and Electrocutions at Power Lines, Communications and Wind Turbines: State of the Art and State of the Science—Next Steps Toward Mitigation, 2005.
14 See Alan Dater and Lisa Merton’s 2018 documentary, Burned: Are Trees the New Coal? Also see Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore’s 2019 documentary, Planet of the Humans.
15 Wertheimer, N. and Ed Leeper, Electrical wiring configurations and childhood cancer, American J. of Epidemiology, 109 (1979).
16 Segell, Michael, Is Dirty Electricity Making You Sick?, Prevention Magazine, Nov. 3, 2011.)