You’re Only as Good as Your Grid: Part IV

Over the last few weeks, we’ve covered how our national energy grid works, how electricity markets are regulated in general and dove into a few specific examples of energy markets in Washington, New Hampshire and Colorado. With this understanding of how electricity markets work in hand, this week we’ll cover how you might influence how your energy is produced, and how you can encourage your utility company to produce more of its electricity without emitting carbon.

Here are five options for reducing the carbon emissions of your electricity use:

1. See what choices your utility offers for buying renewable energy

As we’ve discussed, where you live affects your options for buying electricity. If you’re in a regulated market, you’re locked into your power provider based on your address; in this case, you should still look into what options your utility company offers for buying your electricity from renewable sources. For example, Xcel Energy, which is a major power provider in Colorado, along with several other states, offers lots of options (and a handy chart of available choices) for consumers to buy renewable energy credits.* If you live in a deregulated market, you have the flexibility to choose your energy provider, so you can use your consumer choice to buy power from a company that sells renewable energy.

2. Explore options for buying renewable energy that don’t rely on your utility company

There are a few additional ways that you can buy renewable energy besides directly from your utility; the EPA has a helpful guide to different ways that renewable energy can be supplied. One of these option is buying “unbundled RECs,” which gives a consumer a mechanism to purchase renewable energy credits in addition to paying your current electricity bill; basically, you’re supporting the market for renewable energy, without any direct benefit to yourself or change to your energy consumption. A caveat of RECs is that you should do your homework before buying them, as not all RECs are equally beneficial. The Green-e organization is a good starting place if you’d like to buy RECs; the organization certifies green power options and provides an extensive list of options. One other option for buying power is community choice aggregation (CCA). CCA allows municipalities the option to buy renewable energy for consumers in an opt-out format; that is, a city or region makes a choice about where to buy power from (most often a green source), and offers that power to consumers with the option to choose not to participate. CCA is currently only available in a few states (California, Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island), but is an interesting alternative to retail deregulation.

3. If you live in an apartment or can’t install solar panels, look into community solar options in your area

This option is the most involved of the actions on this list, but solar power is getting less and less expensive every year; so, if you own your own home and it’s financially feasible, you could consider installing solar panels on your home. You should investigate your state’s net metering policies (which determine if you can get credit from your utility for producing more power than you consume) and carefully research installation options. I can’t personally vouch for it, but the site Energy Sage allows you to put in your zip code and get quotes for solar power for your home, which could be a helpful starting point.

4. If you can, buy solar panels for your home

Community solar could be a good option if your living situation prevents you from installing your own solar panels. Most states in the US have some kind of community solar program; getting more information about these programs is a great opportunity to contact your utility company (some programs are utility sponsored) or your local government representatives. Additionally, Acadia Power is a relatively new company that allows consumers to essentially buy into community solar projects; the company’s offerings vary depending on where you live and who your energy provider is, but it’s potentially a good option for supporting clean energy programs. (You can read a somewhat dated Q&A about the company here as well.)

5. Write to your elected officials asking for action on renewable energy

Last, but definitely not least, electricity production is an easy route for contacting your local elected officials, and your utility company. Call your utility company and find out what their offerings for community solar are; ask what actions they are taking to produce more green energy, and what action is needed from consumers to support those efforts. Tell your local representatives that you care about where your power comes from so they advocate for continuing to produce more clean energy. Ramez Naam, a climate activist who was featured in this great article from Grist, suggests asking your representatives to expand your state’s renewable energy standard, pushing for electric vehicle charging stations or asking for net metering policies that allow homeowners with solar panels to sell back their excess power. Basically, anything you can do to remind elected officials at any level that we care about generating power with less CO2 emissions will help spur regulation and innovation towards a greener future. If you don’t know who to contact, there are lots of easy ways to track down your elected officials, including websites here and here.

I hope these tips help provide some actionable ideas for ways you can make your power generation cleaner. One last note; according to this carbon calculator’s estimate using 100% renewable electricity (which is what Seattle City Light provides) reduces our household’s carbon footprint by approximately 2 tons of CO2 per year, out of a rough estimate of 40 tons of total CO2 emissions per year. On an individual level, even going green in your power usage isn’t the whole pie; but, buying green power is a fairly painless and effective way to slice your carbon emissions.  

*Renewable energy credits (RECs) are the main currency by which renewable energy is created and exchanged. I found this article to be a very helpful explanation of RECs and how to assess their quality. The EPA also has a detailed guide on buying green power.

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