The majority of electricity production in the United States comes from the combustion of fossil fuel. However, the low price of electricity derived from fossil fuels such as coal do not reflect the complete cost.
Fossil fuels create many externalities, or external costs that consumers do not directly pay for. These externalities are paid for over time by all of society, however. In order for coal to be burned in power plants, it must first be mined and then transported long distances to power plants where it is burned to produce electricity. This process alone creates externalities. The power plants produce coal combustion waste (CCW), and CCW is filled with many toxic chemicals that leach into nearby water supplies. Coal combustion waste also takes several acres to dispose of. There is also air pollution caused by smoke from the combusted coal, and in 2008, 5,735 million metric tons of CO2 was released into the atmosphere as a result of energy production from coal according to the Energy Information Administration. This is 81 percent of all emissions in 2008. A 2009 study by the National Academy of Sciences revealed that each year fossil fuels cost Americans $120 billion in human health damage and $62 million of this is strictly from coal power plants.
There are solutions, however. One solution is investing heavily in renewable energy, both utility-scale and small-scale. Another option is affordable to everyone and can be practiced immediately. This is efficiency and conservation. Using compact florescent light bulbs (CFLs) is one way to become more efficient, but simply turning off lights, computers, televisions, and other electronics when they are not in use is the most affordable way to save money and use less electricity.
Fossil fuels will be a part of society well into the future, so preserving resources by using less energy is the best way to pave the road to a sustainable future. When less energy is demanded, less is produced, and this means fewer effects on the environment and ecosystem.