Buying Cleaner Energy

Few People Realize the Potential

Turning off unused lights, insulating your house and buying energy-efficient appliances are all great ways to save energy, which decreases air pollution and saves you money in the process. And if everyone were truly conservation-minded, we would save thousands of megawatt-hours of electricity every day. But now you can go a step further. Without buying any equipment or making any changes to your house, you can purchase clean energy from non-polluting sources (you’ve got to keep your soymilk cold somehow). The problem is, not many people are choosing "green power," though it’s available in every state.

© Elizabeth Prager

It may seem confusing at first, but when you buy green power it doesn’t necessarily mean the electricity you actually receive comes directly from a wind turbine or solar panel. That’s because the nature of the grid means that all power—green or not—is combined. Instead, the amount of clean power you buy is generated on your behalf and added to the larger pool of electricity. You still receive your power through your home’s same wires and local grid.

"A switching program through your utility means that your power company buys a REC (renewable energy credit) for your power, and that power is added to the grid," explains Bob Wall, New England’s regional director for Smartpower, which is a Connecticut-based nonprofit marketing campaign working to promote energy produced by solar, wind and hydrothermal sources. "While it’s a little tough to explain, it’s really easy to do," says Wall. "Just call your utility and ask."

"The problem with clean energy is that it’s positioned as an environmental issue," argues Brian Keane, president of Smartpower. Why would a marketing campaign for clean power be critical of using an environmental message to sell the product? Because they’ve done their homework.

Smartpower has done some serious polling, convened focus groups, and generally behaves as if it were launching a new soft drink. It has spent more than $2 million to find out why the clean power industry is floundering, even while most people support the idea of non-polluting energy from the sun, wind and other clean sources. The key word here is "idea." As Keane explains, "We found out that people know clean energy is better for the environment, better for our health and benefits national security by making us less dependent on foreign oil. The problem is, they don’t think it works. They don’t think it can keep the A/C on in the summer."

New England Leads the Way

Smartpower has a plan. "We have to convince people that clean energy is real, strong and working; that it’s just as strong as coal and oil," says Keane. A nationwide program piloted in the Northeast is showing that it can. Connecticut has led the way, with Massachusetts, Maine and Rhode Island more recently joining in the "20 Percent by 2010" campaign, in which towns sign up to pledge to get 20 percent of the town’s energy needs met by green power by 2010.

Households that sign up to receive their energy from renewable sources accomplish several goals: under the campaign, for every 100 signups, the town receives a solar array (which puts the onus of some of the promotions on the town if they want the freebie). More importantly, the more customers that are lined up to buy clean energy, the more wind turbines and solar farms can be built in the future. "Windmills and solar farms are built on speculation, so we need to build demand," says Keane. He points out that just as more hybrid cars are being built because so many people want one, so we need to build clean energy demand for the future.

And while your new fuel-efficient car might make the neighbors instantly aware of how committed to the environment you are, making the less-visible, "on paper" choice for clean energy may be just as important, since making electricity contributes more to air pollution than any other industry in the U.S.

Signing Up Is Easy

To find out if clean energy is available in your area, John Savage, senior vice president of the sector’s largest U.S. company, Green Mountain Energy, says, "You can call your electric utility and ask, and they"ll tell you exactly what is available in your town. If it’s not available through your utility, you can still buy credits online to offset your carbon footprint."

"We’re where organic foods were 15 years ago," Savage says of how popular clean energy is right now. "A handful of people know we’re here, and the market is going to evolve as people catch on, but we’re not quite on the radar yet." Green Mountain has only been around since 1997, but operates in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Oregon and Ohio, and serves more than 600,000 customers. Several other companies and cooperatives serve other areas. Green Mountain says the monthly cost premium for a typical household choosing clean energy amounts to about the price of seeing a movie.

As demand for cleaner power grows, so will the wind farms and solar arrays. "Right now, it costs more to build a new natural gas plant than it does to build a wind farm," Savage points out. And that means that green and not-so-green businesspeople can finally stand behind clean power together.

STARRE VARTAN is a Connecticut-based freelancer who strives to conserve energy.