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Tired Of High Prices And Pollution? Let’s Switch To Clean Energy.

by Linda Walden

If you are afraid to look at your gas bill, you are not alone. Energy prices are sky-high right now with the economy rebounding as the demand for oil and gas outstrips supply. That means more families are struggling to pay heat and electric bills. This problem is especially severe in Mississippi, where nearly 40% of households are “energy burdened” — spending more than 6% of their yearly income on energy bills.

There are other costs, too: Our energy system also harms our health. In Mississippi, and across the U.S., we rely mostly on fossil fuels like natural gas to power our homes and businesses. But air pollution from burning fossil fuels is among the leading causes of illness and premature death worldwide.

As a physician, I see the toll of air pollution every day, both in young children with asthma gasping for breath and in older patients with serious lung and heart disease. We have seen higher death rates from COVID-19 in areas with the dirtiest air.

A Switch to Clean Energy Equals A Healthier Us

At the same time, fossil-fuel combustion spews carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, warming the planet. The results are ever-more deadly heat waves, floods, crop failures and wildfires. This, too, affects my patients, particularly vulnerable communities and people of color, the disabled and pregnant women. Climate change also worsens the health of those with pre-existing conditions such as asthma, COPD, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Children are missing days in school, and adults are missing days of work. Both are suffering.

It doesn’t have to be this way. By switching to clean, renewable energy — including wind and solar — we can help our pocketbooks, our health and our planet.

Instead of sending billions of dollars out of the region each year to import fossil fuels, we can generate power right here with our most abundant resource: sunshine. Today, solar power is more affordable than ever before. The average cost of solar panels has dropped nearly 70% since 2014, and is now economically competitive with fossil fuels. And when you consider the health benefits of cleaner air — fewer sick days and hospitalizations; longer, healthier lives — the savings are incalculable.

Solar energy is on the rise in southeastern states, but Mississippi is lagging behind; less than 1 percent of the state’s electricity comes from solar power. Our region and nation remain heavily dependent on dirty, expensive fossil fuels.

Fortunately, Mississippi has a secret weapon in the fight for affordable, clean energy: rural electric cooperatives. These co-ops were founded during the Great Depression to electrify the countryside, and they still supply a hefty share of the region’s power. Here in Mississippi, electric co-ops serve about 1.8 million (60%) of the state’s 2.9 million residents.

Members are part owners of the co-ops and have a voice, theoretically, in the decisions they make. We can use this voice to encourage co-ops to adopt more clean energy solutions. That’s the goal of a growing “energy democracy” movement, led by groups like Jackson-based OneVoice. These groups are organizing members, training them to serve on co-op boards and fight for better, cleaner power.

It is a fight we must join. Today, we see the high cost of power on our gas and electric bills. But our reliance on burning fossil fuels exacts even greater, though less visible, costs to our health and our future. It’s time to make the transition to clean, affordable renewable energy. We can start by speaking up and urging our rural electric cooperatives to make the switch.

Linda I. Walden, M.D., FAAFP is a family physician; inaugural fellow of the Medical Society Consortium for Climate and Health; and founding /steering committee member for Georgia Clinicians for Climate Action.

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published December 15, 2021 on Mississippi Free Press.

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