Renewable energy at home

October 18, 2008 / Still dreaming of a solar powered world.

For no good reason I delayed a long time when Michel told me about renewable energy options for our residential electricity supply. This month our electric bill came with a signup form paid for by two companies that operate in Connecticut and provide renewable energy options to residential customers: Community Energy, Inc. and Sterling Planet. I spent a little time trying to figure out which to choose and ended up going with Sterling Planet. Since I made that choice I’ve been trying to understand it. Please critique this post in the comments, or pose questions, in case karmic Googling and the knowledge of others can bring answers.

CTCleanEnergyOptions is a state program that allows residential customers to choose a company (currently just the two mentioned above) to supply RECs to replace the energy they consume. RECs represent a certain amount of clean energy benefit—i.e. an amount of fuel not consumed and pollutants avoided by generating one kilowatt-hour of electricity from low-pollutant, renewable sources. By opting to pay a clean energy premium the electricity you use will probably still come from dirty sources, but the green supplier partner will make sure that an equivalent amount of the right kind of RECs (the state program mandates wind and small hydroelectric power) are created or traded, directly supporting the clean energy market and slightly eroding the demand for dirty energy. The end result is that you’re paying for the generation of renewable electricity somewhere else, for the amounts that you are using at home.

My precious mentals can’t really grok RECs, so I’m going to reach for an analogy that probably doesn’t stand up. Electricity is aggregated in pools, so imagine instead a blended whiskey. The current state of this blend is that it is crap because it is made from crappy whiskeys, the production of which is destroying the planet. The solution is to get higher quality whiskeys into the mix. To help out you join a program supported by both the bottler and the government that says that for every litre of the blend you consume, another whiskey producer of your choice will provide a litre of higher quality scotch. You select your supplier and voluntarily pay a modest premium on each purchase, and receive in turn the dubious satisfaction of hoping that you are contributing to a wholesale improvement of the product.

It’s all a bit amorphous, really, but the cost is so low compared to the price of trying to generate your own clean energy that it’s probably worth the risk. For me it always helps to get the endorsement of a group that ought to know, and in this case the Union of Concerned Scientists explains why buying green power in this manner is a good idea. Another site that should be useful to those in the U.S. is Green-e, which can tell you what certified green power options are available in your state. The best I can tell is that paying for green power this way is generally sound in principle, though uncertain in its effects. Hopefully, I’m being overly pessimistic.

Edited to add: I chose Sterling Planet because its energy mix includes more wind power than CEI’s, and because it was recognised with a Green Power Supplier award in 2007 by the U.S. Department of Energy. It’s also a U.S. company, so perhaps supporting it will help to encourage the clean energy industry that we sorely need. CEI is a division of a Spanish company called Iberdrola Renewables. If anyone has a good argument for choosing CEI though, I’m open to it.

4 responses

  1. Jay Carlis

    Thank you for supporting renewable energy and taking such a thoughtful approach to considering your product options. You said you are open to arguments for choosing Community Energy, so here are some thoughts. First of all, Community Energy started marketing and building renewable energy projects in the US in 1999. It is true that we are now owned by a global company, IBERDROLA RENEWABLES. This company, however, is the second largest wind farm developer in the United States. In fact, IBERDROLA RENEWABLES has built wind power projects in 12 states, with many more going into construction all the time. While the company has roots in Spain, they see a great future in helping to spark the renewable energy boom in the US, and have the investment track record to prove it. Community Energy is very proud of our parent.
    Full disclosure: I work for Community Energy.

    October 20th, 2008 at 12:04 pm #

  2. Adrian

    Thanks for your comments Jay.

    October 20th, 2008 at 11:06 pm #

  3. Jay Carlis

    Happy to. I also wanted to say that I like the whisky analogy. A lot more interesting than the bathtub we usually use.

    October 21st, 2008 at 4:49 pm #

  4. Jefe

    Well, clearly another reason to buy into these schemes is that clean-energy companies place a premium on customer service. I’m impressed.

    I also think there’s a political benefit to this stuff, as it helps generate some tangible data on how much demand there is (and at what price) for cleaner alternatives. The more demonstrated demand, the more the relevant policy debates get tilted in a greener direction, etc. etc.

    October 23rd, 2008 at 10:18 pm #

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