GreenSpace: A plug for picking a green power option

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istockphoto.com/geopaul
Posted: May 16, 2011

I may have shocked the man I was conversing with at a party a few months ago.

But after talking to me, I bet he didn't feel as guilty.

It was just as Pennsylvania's power market was being deregulated. Suddenly, instead of Peco's being the only electricity provider for Southeastern Pennsylvania, there was a gusher of choices - more than two dozen.

People could do more than look for cheaper alternatives. They could look for greener ones.

Party man wanted to know what the green-living reporter - that would be me - was going to do.

Back then, I was still brash about it. "Life's short," I said. "I haven't made a choice. I don't know when I will."

Blasphemy! But really, who has the time?

According to the chair of the state Public Utility Commission, Robert F. Powelson, fewer than a fifth of Peco's customers have switched, and he's disappointed about that.

For illumination on the reason, I suggest he look at his own website, designed to help people sort out the options - www.papowerswitch.com.

When I entered my zip code and other information, it produced a chart with more than two dozen options. I asked it to sort out the companies offering renewable energy. That got me down to nine choices.

But the chart didn't say how much of the energy was renewable, or what kind it was. The chart merely instructed: "Call for details."

Somehow, this seemed to fall into my complaint that we have way too many meaningless choices in our culture. We have way too many paint colors. Way too many brands of jeans. Don't even get me started on lightbulbs!

All this fosters the illusion that perfection is achievable, if we just tweak our consumption habits. If we buy a little more. Or spend a little more.

Why couldn't electric companies do the right thing and incorporate more renewables, not put the onus on me?

But now I'm feeling totally sheepish. I really should have done this already.

Courtney Lane agrees. She's the senior energy policy analyst with PennFuture, a state advocacy nonprofit, and when I called and told her I still hadn't switched, I could hear her surprise - a little intake of breath.

PennFuture is big on this because of the current power mix in the regional grid - about 50 percent coal, and many plants still do not have modern pollution controls.

She did not scold. She was nice. But, "if you're not buying green power, your money is just going to all these older polluting power plants," she said. "You're just supporting the status quo."

Conversely, when you buy green power, "you're sending a market signal. You're helping to create demand for the product and you're helping to support existing products."

But Lane felt my pain. Recently, she spent three days building a chart that shows the state's green power options. She could find little detail online. "I had to call all these companies," she said. "I got transferred. . . ."

To find the chart, go to www.PennFuture.org and click on "energy," then "shopping for electricity," then "buy green electricity."

Now we're talking!

I learn that several companies offer not just a portion of wind, but 100 percent wind. You can buy a combo of hydropower, wind, and solar. Another plan adds geothermal.

And since all green power is not equal, PennFuture specifies where it is.

Lane likens the regional grid to a bathtub. All sorts of power plants are pumping electricity into it. If you support a renewable energy project that's not local, OK, but you're not greening our tub.

There are other columns to delve into, including one noting which plans are "Green-e certified" by an independent auditor, which is an extra layer of assurance.

What PennFuture doesn't do is rank the companies. Different people really are looking for different things.

It also doesn't list the prices, which are often higher for green power. They're changing all the time, and that's not what PennFuture focuses on.

Plus, as my colleague Andrew Maykuth pointed out in a story Sunday, plenty of customers have gotten snookered by hidden fees, variable rates, and improper sales taxes.

Lane suggests picking a few projects from her chart, then checking prices on the PUC chart - or a similar one on the site of the Pennsylvania Office of Consumer Advocate.

Things look easier now, though it's still a daunting process. How about a group approach? Visit my blog and share your wisdom and experiences.


Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com. Visit her blog at http://go.philly.com/greenspace

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