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July 3, 2007

LG&E customers will soon know household carbon output: What’s the frequency?

Electricity users in the Bluegrass will soon learn the awful truth about how much carbon output their electricity consumption creates, one balmy summer month at a time.In a unique initiative to better inform customers of their contributions to global warming, LG&E and Kentucky Utilities (which covers Lexington and surrounding counties) will begin including the amount of pounds of carbon output each household emits based on the amount of electricity used that month on every bill. The figure, whose size may come as a shock to you, will appear on the back of those providers’ next and subsequent bills.“It’s just an awareness, ensuring that our customers understand they have an impact on the environment as well,” said Chris Whelan, communications manager for E.ON U.S., the parent company to both utilities.Whelan said she hopes the initiative helps customers further connect the economic and environmental: Along with a count of customers’ output of the primary greenhouse gas contributing to global warming will be tips on how to conserve energy. For example, replacing just five of your most oft-used light bulbs with compact fluorescent (or “swirly”) bulbs could keep more than 1,900 pounds of carbon from floating into the air and save you something like $60 a year. Tom Fitzgerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, applauded the effort. “I think that having an understanding of our impact, of the footprint that our energy use has, is an important first step toward educating folks, toward motivating people to be more efficient,” he said in an interview Tuesday.Fitzgerald added that it’s important for individuals to realize that cheap energy like Kentucky’s comes at a greater cost to us — no doubt the single largest block of global warming contributors, though we often prefer to hang that designation on “industry” rather than address our own patterns of profound consumption — in the face of a national carbon mandate likely to pass in the next three to five years.Such a thing may dramatically increase the price of electricity provided by coal-fired power plants, a huge carbon dioxide contributor. Currently, about 40 percent of the United States gets its electricity from coal; more than 90 percent of Kentucky does. Kentucky has among the cheapest coal-provided electricity in the country; once an asset, Fitzgerald said it is becoming a vulnerability. When a federal carbon mandate is achieved, unless we have developed ways to sequester carbon emissions and make coal truly “cleaner,” Kentucky may be in a heap of trouble.E.ON U.S. is the first power company in the States to measure carbon output on monthly bills. Both its German and British divisions have led efforts to embrace “green energy,” or more inventive ways of powering all of our computers, McMansions, televisions and espresso makers, the recent proliferation of which is unique to humankind.Here in Louisville, home to the company’s American headquarters, E.ON has invested $25 million in developing FutureGen, a near-zero emissions coal-fired power plant. It has also given $1.5 million to University of Kentucky researchers investigating other “clean coal” technologies. Whelan said that, because Kentucky is a coal state, much of the company’s focus would stay on coal. Fitzgerald said the company “still has a long way to go to become a leader in terms of encouraging and creating incentives for end-use efficiency.” One way to achieve that would be to move away from the current company-to-consumer relationship, in which the more power a company sells, the more money it makes. There is an E.ON pilot program awaiting approval from the Kentucky Public Service Commission now that would place devices in homes that measure, in real-time dollar amount, what you’re spending on electricity. No bigger than an alarm clock, the devices would change each time you turn a light on, for instance. Whelan said the company expects the PSC to rule on the program within a week or two.  Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com