Is it truly green?
First, scrutinize the claims of "green" energy providers who send you literature asking you to buy their product. "You have the right to know where your electricity is coming from," said California energy consultant Dana Smirin. "Insist that providers disclose the breakdown of renewable and non-renewable energy in their advertised power packages. Some providers claim to be green when only a small amount of their mix is from acceptable renewable sources."
Green-power packages often incorporate from 50 to 100 percent renewables from a variety of sources, augmented by coal, nuclear or large hydropower energy. Even if you can't find the exact power package you'd like, keep in mind that you will improve the power pool just by purchasing energy with higher renewable content than the existing pool of energy. Even in renewable-rich California, the pool contains only 10 percent renewables, not counting power from large dams.
"Few, if any, suppliers are providing only renewable green energy - electricity with a high percentage of renewables," said Rich Ferguson, Club Energy Committee chair and research director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technology in Sacramento, Calif. "By buying their green products, you demonstrate that people care where their electricity comes from. Even if the power you buy isn't completely green, you'll still be improving the situation."
Help with your homework
If you don't have the time to do your own research, you can also rely on certification organizations to help you find out which energy providers actually deliver the green goods.
In California and Pennsylvania, providers can apply for Green-e - green power - certification through the Center for Resource Solutions in San Francisco. An independent organization, members of the Green-e board - appointed from consumer protection, consumer advocacy and environmental groups - get a commitment from the provider to purchase renewables and then verify that it actually purchases renewable energy.
The Green-e program, developed in 1997, ensures California consumers that at least 50 percent of the electricity in the offered package is purchased from renewable sources - like the sun, wind, biomass and geothermal - and that complies with the program.
"The system is being tested with power marketers now," said Club Energy Committee Chair Nancy Hirsh, who helped develop the scoring system. "This fall we hope that other environmental groups will be able to use this tool to rate each power product offered in their area."
What it costs
Once you find a reliable provider, you'll see that green energy costs a little more since the cost of fossil fuels is at an all-time low, and the cost of pollution from fossil fuels is not reflected in its price. You can initially expect cleaner sources of electricity to cost you from $8 to $15 more a month, based on an average monthly bill of $60.
But voting for cleaner energy with consumer dollars may do even more than increasing the renewable energy content in your power grid. Thinking long term, the demand for green energy that you create should motivate providers to improve or create new technology for generating green electricity. Prices should go down as supply increases and competition kicks in.
The other three sections of this feature:
The main article: Green Power or Greenwashing?
Definitions. What are stranded costs, anyway?
Swimming in the power pool.
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