“We’re buying some of the sun!” That was the proud proclamation Max Woodfin’s then 7-year-old son made when their family started purchasing solar power 20 years ago. Woodfin, Director of EarthShare Texas, lives in Austin and has been helping his utility, Austin Energy, integrate solar power into their local grid by paying an extra fee on his energy bill each month (in an arrangement known as green pricing).
Woodfin is only one of the many EarthShare staff members around the country who’ve made the switch to renewable energy. Their stories illustrate how easy it is to support the greening of the American grid and how diverse the options for clean energy purchasing are becoming.
Austin as a whole has been upping its commitment to renewable energy each year – Houston, TX is the only city in the country that purchases more green power. By this year, every Austin municipal building will run on 100% renewable energy. By 2030, at least 35% of the city’s energy must be generated by renewable sources.
The growing interest in renewables is reflected on the individual level too: Woodfin has noticed an uptick in the number of people taking part in Austin’s green energy programs and in conversations about the topic on community listservs. Although it costs a bit more to support renewable energy in his region, Woodfin says it’s worth it. “You’re putting your faith and your pocketbook in future generations,” he says.
William Borden, Director of EarthShare Washington agrees. “You’ve got to believe that for people who know about climate change, especially if you have grandkids, renewables make sense.” Borden’s household participates in Seattle City Light’s Green Up program which, like Austin Energy, charges consumers a monthly fee to integrate more renewables into the grid.
“Seattle is a city that prides itself on being sustainable,” Borden says, pointing to a recent mayoral race in which the two leading candidates tried to “out-green” each other for votes.
Nearby Portland, OR is also renowned for its commitment to sustainability and EarthShare Oregon is no exception. Everyone at their office either purchases renewable energy or generates their own electricity from solar panels, with tax incentives and zero or low interest loans from the local utility, Portland General Electric.
“I think most of the west-coast utility companies push efficiency and renewables pretty hard, so it’s easy to be “green” out here,” says EarthShare Oregon Director Jan Wilson. “Oregon has only one coal-fired power plant (which will be shut down in a couple years), no off-shore or on-land oil drilling, and our hydro-power dams are at capacity. So it’s either wind and solar, or we have to pipe in more natural gas, and nobody’s up for that.”
EarthShare President and CEO Kalman Stein considered putting solar panels on his Maryland home last year, but he decided to purchase wind power from local renewable energy supplier Clean Currents instead when he discovered optimal sunlight would require cutting some of his trees down.
Stein learned about Clean Currents when he had an energy audit conducted on his home. In addition to suggesting weatherization work, the audit recommended he switch to Clean Currents’ wind power program.
Maryland’s electricity market is deregulated, so residential rate-payers can choose the company that supplies their home’s power. Now Stein’s home is supplied with wind power through Clean Currents. His electric bill still comes through the regional utility provider so there’s no extra paperwork to fill out. Several other EarthShare national staff, both in Maryland and DC, also purchase wind power from Clean Currents.
When customers in Washington DC and Maryland switch to wind power from companies like Clean Currents, they often find that their electricity bills are lower than or at least equal to what a regular utility might charge. In other words, renewable energy is competitive with sources like coal and nuclear, leaving no reason for people not to make the switch. A handful of other states have deregulated energy markets that make renewables not only the more environmentally-friendly option, but the more cost-effective one as well.
The Center for Resource Solutions (CRS), which administers Green-e, the country’s leading certification system for renewable energy markets in the U.S., says that there is much more consumers could be doing to support green power. “When utilities offer these programs to their customers, the average subscription rate is 2%. That’s abysmal,” says Jeff Swenerton, Communications Director at CRS. Buying green power is easy and inexpensive and “it makes a difference,” he says.
EarthShare staff recognize that renewables are only one aspect of addressing energy and climate change concerns. Renewable energy, which tackles the supply side, won’t help the problems we face unless we drastically scale back demand for energy too in the form of more efficient buildings and cities. That’s why people like Woodfin, Wilson and Stein link their clean energy purchases to building retrofits and weatherization or point to efficiency measures enacted by local governments.
Ready to make the switch to clean energy yourself? Read our tips on buying renewable power to get started – you’ll be surprised at how easy it is. Then tell us about the status of renewables in your own region in the comments section!