How Clean Is Your Electricity? Ask The EPA – PlanetSave

How Clean Is Your Electricity? Ask The EPA

If you’ve ever wondered about the composition of the electricity delivered to your home (most of us have no clue), there’s one quick and easy way to find out. The EPA’s ‘Power Profiler’ tool has apparently been around for at least 2 years, but I only discovered it recently. Although the data used to generate the results comes primarily from 2009, the tool gives some insight into where the  electricity supplied to a particular region of the US comes from, broken down rather broadly into the different generation technologies. Used in conjunction with other online resources discussed below, it’s possible to get a pretty good idea of where your region (and the US as a whole) is at with renewable energy generation, if not where it might be headed.

Electricity supply breakdown

NYC fuel mix comparison
Fuel mix comparison for an NYC zip code. (Source:

Results generated by the Power Profiler are based on the user’s zip code. Upon entering my own New York City zip code, I learn that ordinary residences in NYC receive a gas-heavy mix of electricity. Nuclear comes in a strong 2nd place, with minimal amounts of non-hydro renewables and oil following up the rear. (Those who subscribe to a green power program in New York, of course, would have a different mix.)

The chart also demonstrates how my electricity mix stacks up against the national average. As can be seen, the US as a whole is still highly reliant on coal for its electricity, with natural gas and nuclear power vying for 2nd place both hydropower and non-hydro renewable energy make an appearance, but their contributions amount to only about 10% of all electricity generated.

If you want to learn about the pros and cons of each of these generation technologies, the results in the report make it easy. The names of the generation types (underlined and in blue in the report’s charts) are hyperlinked to pages full of relevant information. Clicking on the ‘Nuclear‘ link, for example, you can learn (if you didn’t already know)  that, although producing no air pollution while generating electricity, nuclear plants (which require lots of water for steam and cooling) do result in the release of heavy metals into the bodies of water upon which they draw. And, as of now, the spent nuclear fuel they produce as a waste product has no permanent resting place–all of it is kept on site in temporary containment units.

Plugging in some other random zip codes yields interesting results. Below are results from some other US cities. (See if you can guess where they are from before reading the captions.)

Houston TX Fuel Mix Comparison
Houston, Texas: Highly reliant on gas & coal power, but a stronger showing for non-hydro renewables than the national average–mostly thanks to wind uptake.
LA Fuel Mix Comparison
Los Angeles: Mainly gas, followed by a bit of coal, nuclear, and hydro. More non-hydro renewables than the national average.
Denver CO Fuel Mix Comparison
Denver, Colorado is highly reliant on coal power, followed by gas, then small parts hydro & non-hydro renewables.
Montgomery, Alabama Fuel Mix Comparison
Electricity in Montgomery, Alabama comes mainly from coal.
Buffalo NY Fuel Mix Comparison
Buffalo, NY–unsurprisingly, thanks to Niagara Falls–gets a much higher percentage of its electricity from hydropower than the national average.

Emissions breakdown

The Power Profiler also gives you some idea of the emissions-intensity of the electricity that you use. Fossil fuel-based generation is well known for its CO2 emissions (yes, even natural gas), but the amount of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide generated when fuels like gas and coal are burned is also significant. While CO2 in the atmosphere is not toxic for humans to breath, it is is the main driver anthropogenic climate change. The other 2 gases, on the other hand, are known more for their impacts on human health, mainly the respiratory system. Sulfur dioxide is also the major cause of acid rain.

Like the generation technologies in the graphs above, the emission names in the charts below are clickable–bringing the viewer to a page with more information about each of them.

NYC Emissions Comparison
Emissions intensity of the electricity delivered to a NYC residence not subscribed to a green power plan.
Denver, CO emissions comparison
Emissions comparison for Denver. Note how much higher  intensity of all emissions types are compared to NYC, due to a heavier reliance on coal-fired power.

How to ‘make a difference’

Make a difference

The EPA, apparently assuming the user will be perturbed by what they see in the report, doesn’t leave them hanging in despair with nothing to do with this information. The final section of the web-based report offers a few suggestions about how to take action to make things a bit better. Households can find out more about the emissions specific to their own business, learn about becoming more energy-efficient, or find a green power provider. Clicking on the last of these 3 options brings the user to a comprehensive list of the clean power providers in their region, complete with what type of green power each one sells (solar, wind, etc).

The Power Profile: Try it out

As pointed out, the data may not all be up to date (most of the progress for rooftop solar power has taken place in the past few years so wouldn’t show up in the results), but it’s still definitely worth checking out. You can find the EPA’s Power Profiler living here.

Other cool energy explorer tools

There’s seemingly no end to the sort of energy data that you can get your hands on with a little bit of online searching. The Energy Information Administration’s (EIA’s) electricity data browser, for example, is an incredibly comprehensive, interactive tool that lets you delve down into the energy composition of the country as a whole, or regions and states, not to mention sector breakdowns and current and past electricity prices. Another useful tool that has come out recently is this amazing, interactive map put together by NPR using the EPA’s eGRID database (also a great resource). The map shows overlays of each state’s reliance on the various generation technologies that it uses, as well as existing and proposed transmission lines for wind and solar power.

This post was supported by AGL Solar

About the Author

James Martin II has a BA in Philosophy from Bridgewater State College, and a Master's degree in Environmental Management from the University of New South Wales. He has lived in the US, Japan, and Australia. Currently, he lives in NYC doing research and writing about cleantech (mainly solar PV) for a few different websites, including Australian solar brokers Solar Choice.