Why you should care
Because more than 120 million Americans live near a changing eastern seaboard.
Residents and visitors alike love Miami’s subtropical weather — crank up the AC! — and its dazzling oceanside setting, but climate change threatens the vibrant and booming metropolis’ waterfront assets. In fact, much of Miami’s multibillion-dollar real estate could turn into an underwater attraction by the end of the century when a potential 5-foot rise in sea levels inundates much of a city that boasts an elevation of just 6 feet — at least according to a Southeast Florida climate change report. Interim threats in the run-up to that soggy era include flooding, shoreline erosion and destruction from more powerful and more frequent storms.
By now, the gloomy linkage has become familiar and accepted in science-based circles: Burning fossil fuels is the biggest source of human-generated greenhouse gases and the primary cause of climate change, which melts polar ice and warms oceans, both of which elevate sea levels. And electricity generation is responsible for 29 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions, the largest of any economic sector, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
When it comes to global upheavals, Miami obviously is not the sole agent of its own looming environmental disaster. And yet, according to a study released earlier this week by Arcadia Power, a Washington, D.C.–based clean energy company:
Residents of cities that face the greatest risk from future climate change are the least efficient consumers of electricity — with Miami the worst offender.
The Arcadia Power study looked at more than 7,400 households in 15 cities that have sufficient population, density and Arcadia Power customers to create a valid sample, says Joel Gamoran, Arcadia’s director of energy services.
Miami households used over 60 percent more electricity per month than the national average in 2017, the report found. Additionally, when normalized for what Gamoran says are the two most significant variables in electricity use — home size and climate — Miami households still used 30 percent more kilowatt hours per month than Chicago, which was the most efficient city.
In fairness to Miami, it should be noted that Chicago and many other northern outposts warm themselves in winter mainly with natural gas, which was not factored into the Arcadia report. In balmier parts of the country, electricity is the energy most often used to cool homes, which helps explain why many of the other “least efficient” cities on the list — all Southern and Southwestern cities, including Atlanta, Charlotte and Phoenix — use more electricity than, say, New York City and Denver, says Janet Reyna, ORISE science and technology policy fellow at the U.S. Department of Energy.
In fact, more than 90 percent of Florida households use electricity as their primary energy source for both heating and cooling, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) state profile for Florida. And the demand for electricity likely will increase across much of the country in the coming years, Reyna says. “In the U.S. we’re expecting a lot of population growth over the next 40 to 50 years, up to 30 percent in some estimates,” Reyna says. “The cities that are growing rapidly are in the South and the West, precisely the areas that need more cooling and that will also be most impacted by climate change.”
The type of energy source, in addition to the quantity consumed, contributes to the overall environmental impact. Burning natural gas, for example, produces fewer carbon emissions than burning coal, which is used to generate about a third of US electricity. And electricity generation’s footprint can shrink even more as power from solar and other renewables is funneled into the grid. (And that, it should be noted, is Arcadia’s mission.)
Florida has reduced its coal consumption in the electric power sector by a third from 2006 to 2016, and it currently gets slightly more than 3 percent of its energy from renewables. The state intends to increase that contribution, although in the short term most of its electricity production will continue to be based on natural gas–fired plants, according to a state review of its 10-year utilities plan.
On a more individual level, however, Gamoran says he hopes the Arcadia report will draw attention to the impact of household electricity consumption and motivate homeowners to install LED lights and smart thermostats and take other conservation measures. It may not be enough to turn the rising tide along Florida’s Gold Coast and elsewhere in the decades to come, but perhaps Miami can find a way to keep up its electric atmosphere while keeping down its electricity usage.