Green Power for Your Home

Plugging into Sustainable Energy

10-01-2003 // Kim A. O'Connell

ON A RECENT DRIVE through northern Colorado, Brooks Van Everen and his wife were dazzled by the landscape, which at its highest points seemed to pierce the sky. But they were not looking at Colorado's famed fourteeners—as the state's tallest snow-capped summits are called—but rather an Xcel Energy wind farm, with its array of striking, spinning turbines. Van Everen was so impressed by the scale of this renewable energy source that he soon signed up for the local power company's Windsource program, which allows customers to designate that part or all of their electricity be generated by wind power. Xcel sells 100 kilowatt-hour blocks at $2.50 apiece and adds it to customers' monthly electricity charges. "It was one of those feel-good things," Van Everen says. "We can take some small step toward reducing our dependence on coal."

Today, more than 300 utilities in 32 states offer these so-called green pricing programs, which offer an alternative to fossil fuels that produce harmful emissions and contribute to the nation's dependence on foreign energy sources. Though such programs are not yet widely publicized, more than 400,000 customers nationwide are now opting for electricity powered by renewable sources, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado—even though doing so costs a bit more. "But as more people tap into such resources, clean energy will become increasingly affordable and the infrastructure for this environmentally sound industry will expand," says Blair Swezey, principal policy advisor for NREL, which ranks the leading green pricing programs each year.

Green energy comes from a variety of sources, including solar energy, hydropower, landfill methane gas and biomass (organic waste products). "But wind energy is the most cost-effective green power source available today," says Swezey. "There are very few states or regions in the country where wind energy development is not feasible." In Colorado, Xcel Energy's 27,000 Windsource customers can choose the number of renewable energy blocks they want to buy a month—from 1 to 100 percent of their electricity usage. According to Xcel spokesman Steve Roalstad, the program began after a groundswell of consumer interest. "Customers started telling us they wanted us to pursue more environmentally aware methods of producing electricity," he says.

Similarly, Texas's Austin Energy offers customers alternative energy through its GreenChoice program—the nation's top-selling green pricing program, according to NREL. The program's renewable energy comes primarily from a wind farm in West Texas, but also from landfill gas, solar and hydropower projects throughout the state. "West Texas used to be known for oil fields, but now we have all that wind energy out there," says Elizabeth Kasprowicz, a GreenChoice representative. "It's the new Texas identity."

GreenChoice allows customers to lock in their green-power rate until 2011, a hedge against rising fuel costs. This was particularly attractive to customer Billy Niels, president of Hanger's Cleaners, who tapped into renewables to power his Austin dry cleaning plant. "We wanted to show that you could do environmentally sound things and still turn a profit," Niels says. "Fuel costs are going to skyrocket, but now that's not going to affect us."

On the East Coast, about 8,000 residential customers in the Mid-Atlantic get their electricity through their local utility but designate that a percentage will come from green power provided by Pepco Energy Services, an Arlington, Virginia, subsidiary of the Pepco utility in Washington, D.C. Pepco Energy Services figures the cost of the green power and bills the local utility, which adds the fee to customers' monthly bills. Pepco Energy taps primarily into wind power, although it recently announced plans to produce energy from landfill gas collected from a Northern Virginia landfill.

The actual Pepco offers its Washington, D.C., customers a similar choice. Homeowner Katie Leavy is billed for electricity through Pepco but has designated that 100 percent of her power come from wind energy offered by Washington Gas Energy Services (WGES) in Herndon, Virginia. "Everyone can do their part to make this planet a little greener," says Leavy. In fact, another 10,000 residential and commercial customers in the region—including the U.S. Army, American University and the National Geographic Society—are purchasing some or all of their electricity from the largest wind farm east of the Mississippi. The Mountaineer Wind Energy Center, which recently opened in Tucker County, West Virginia, is expected to offset 200 million pounds of air pollution a year—the equivalent of planting 14 million trees or taking 14,000 cars off the road.

Still, less than half of the nation's electricity customers—about 45 percent—have access to a local green-pricing program. This is turning some consumers into vocal advocates for these alternatives. Sharon Kenyon, a homeowner in Renton, Washington, was already paying $10 extra a month for wind power through her local utility when she took it a step further. As the holidays approached last year, she asked Puget Sound Energy if she could buy green power gift certificates to use as Christmas gifts. The company ran with the idea and started a "Gift of Green" campaign. Now residents can buy green energy as presents to friends and relatives all year round. "I thought it would be neat to do a green energy gift as stocking stuffers," Kenyon says. "I gave the gifts to my relatives and my children. Since then, both of my adult children have signed up for the program."

But citizens do not need to have a local green pricing program to support renewable energy. People can also purchase renewable energy certificates, which act as green power guarantees. Citizens still get electricity through their local utility, but these certificates guarantee that the amount of electricity they purchase is being offset elsewhere with green power. For example, Duke University recently signed an agreement with Renewable Choice Energy, a renewable energy certificate marketer in Longmont, Colorado, because green pricing is not yet available in North Carolina. To challenge students to buy a semester's worth of green energy, estimated at about $25, the university agreed to match up to $25,000 worth of student purchases. If the students meet the university's challenge, they will have avoided the equivalent of four million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.

At the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, 74 percent of the students voted last February to increase their tuition by $4 a semester so that a portion of the campus's power could be obtained through renewable energy. With help from NWF's Campus Ecology® program, the student-led undertaking is expected to provide an extra $300,000 a year for green energy projects beginning this school year.

Although renewable energy appears to be gaining popularity with a new generation of consumers, NREL's Swezey points out that new green pricing programs have slowed since their peak around 2000. However, a growing number of states are requiring utilities to offer green power options to their customers, and 13 states now require suppliers to obtain some of their electricity from renewable sources. As states consider getting on board, citizens likely will have more opportunities to tap into green power in the future.

"People know that our current energy level is unsustainable and environmentally unsound, yet they have always been told there is nothing they can do about it," says Sam Hummel, a Duke senior and green power purchaser. "When you show them that they now have a choice over how their energy is produced, their eyes light up."

After writing this article, Kim A. O'Connell tapped into green energy for her Arlington, Virginia, home.

What You Can Do

The average American generates some 12,000 pounds of carbon dioxide annually, according to the EPA. You can reduce this figure considerably by buying energy from renewable sources. Even if your local utility cannot supply your house with green energy, you can do your part by buying "green energy certificates," which guarantee the amount of fossil fuel energy you use is offset elsewhere by green power. NWF is partnering with 3 Phases Energy Services to offer this service nationwide. For more information about the program, including how to purchase certificates, see www.3phases.com.

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