Editor's note - This is the fourth in a multi-part series by guest blogger Dr. James Crooks. See Part 1 [Link], Part 2 [Link] , Part 3 [Link].
Part 4 - Using Alternative Energy Without Making Your Own
If buying or leasing your own solar panels doesn’t work for you there are a number of alternatives. The first alternative is purchasing emissions offsets through a national vendor. There are generally no state regulations forbidding this, but it’s up to your local utility whether they want to partner with the vendor to make the billing process simple. The vendor’s power may not be produced in the state you live in but rather in a state where the climate and regulatory environment are conducive. While this means that the electrons entering your house are still probably produced by whatever power plants are near you, the climate doesn’t care where the emissions come from so paying to generate wind power half way across the county provides almost the same benefit to the climate as paying to generate wind power in your front yard. These sorts of arrangements increase your utility bill a bit but help you offset your emissions without buying or leasing hardware. For more information on vendors, check www.green-e.org and select “Renewable Energy Certificate” under Product Type [Link].
In our household we offset our natural gas and non-solar electricity usage through a vendor called Arcadia Power [Link]. They have three main programs. The first program allows you to offset half of your residential emissions for free. There’s no contract and there isn’t even a service charge. You just sign up and that’s all there is to it. I’m not going to be giving out many recommendations in this series, but this program I strongly recommend. [I’m not an Arcadia shareholder or owner and I get no money or swag from them, I just think this program is amazing.] It’s the easiest and cheapest way that I know of to quickly reduce your carbon footprint. The second program, and the one that we use, offsets all of our residential emissions through wind production and costs $0.015/kWh plus a $5/month service charge. For us this totals $6 or $7/month above what we’d normally pay for grid electricity. For the average U.S. home without solar panels the cost would be somewhere around $15 to $20/month. Fun fact: the $0.015/kWh rate is almost three times cheaper than our old utility’s green pricing option (see below) when we lived in North Carolina, though that program didn't charge a monthly fee. Arcadia’s third program let’s you buy a “subscription” to a solar panel somewhere else in the country, and the proceeds from selling that panel’s power to the grid are deducted from your power bill. This is a great option for people living in apartments or condos or in places with poor sunlight. You can also keep your subscription if you move. The subscription costs $350/panel and lasts 20 years. You can subscribe to more than one panel and maintenance is included. You get back about $5/panel/month on your electric bill, which means the subscription ought to pay for itself in 6 years.
...the climate doesn’t care where the emissions come from, so paying to generate wind power half way across the county provides almost the same benefit to the climate as paying to generate wind power in your front yard.
The second alternative is “green pricing” through your utility. You pay a bit extra on your electric bill to guarantee that your electricity is coming from renewable sources. You can even do this in “blocks” so you can offset part of your emissions if going whole hog is too expensive. Check with your utility to see if you can purchase renewable energy through them. Here’s a list of utilities with green pricing options by state [Link]. They can be very easy to sign up for but are not necessarily transparent regarding where the energy comes from. They are also not necessarily transparent regarding how much of the additional charge goes to overhead or whether the price is appropriate. Do some digging.
The third alternative is community solar. The way this works is that consumers buy shares of the electricity generated by a local solar farm. These small solar producers sell their electricity to local utilities, and each consumer’s share of the sale price offsets part of their electric utility bill. It works like the solar panel subscription program above except the power is generated locally. This website has a map of the community solar producers around the country [Link]. Some states ban these sorts of arrangements while others encourage them. The electrons produced by these panels may not go directly into your house but they’re at least going into the homes of people in your community. You are helping to reduce your community’s carbon footprint and improve local air quality.
Dr. James Crooks is an environmental health researcher and statistician at National JewishHealth, a respiratory research hospital in Denver, Colorado. He researches the health effects of climate-driven extreme air pollution events. He's also interested in genomics, toxicology, and infectious diseases. Before joining the faculty of National Jewish he worked for seven years at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He earned a Ph.D. in physics and a M.S. in statistics from UNC Chapel Hill. He is a husband and the father of two boys.