If you’re looking to reduce the environmental impact of your life, for most people transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. How we get around and between our cities and towns powered by polluting fossil fuels has a massive carbon footprint. Right after that, on the household level, is all the electricity we consume, in most places generated by burning fossil fuels, despite the ongoing progress in installing renewable energy.

But you already knew that, right? And you want to do something about it? If you own your home, putting solar panels on your roof (or on your property…) very well may be the first thing that pops to mind. That’s not a bad route to go down, by any means.

image via Shutterstock
image via Shutterstock

However, what if the price of solar power is too steep for your bank balance to handle, or what if you own an apartment where you don’t actually have any roof space to call your own (that’s me, by the way), or what if you rent? Suddenly it may seem like you’re stuck with pollution. Thankfully that’s not the case. And it’s where green power programs come in.

How You Can Buy Renewable Energy From Your Utility

At one point in the not-so-distant past you were stuck with whatever mix of fuel sources your local utility used to make electricity — but no longer. The US Dept of Energy website’s latest tally shows that more than 850 utilities in the nation have green power pricing, either directly through the utility itself or through a separate energy provider. That is, for a small additional charge per kilowatt-hour of electricity, which varies from program to program, you pay for your electricity to come from a renewable energy source — which varies from place to place, as well as can come from a single source (such as 100% wind power), or from a mixture of sources (for example, 50% small-scale hydropower, 25% wind power, and 25% biomass).

The whole thing is a bit of an abstraction. When you sign up for a green power program, the electricity that comes into your home at any given moment isn’t entirely from renewable energy sources. It’s whatever has been fed into and distributed around the grid at that time (simplistically) — again, in most places, largely fossil fuels. But, what your small additional fee goes to is supporting the specific projects that your specific green power provider is affiliated with.

If you suspect that there are some not-insignificant ‘buts’ in all this, you’re not wrong — and we’ll get to some of those shortly — but if you’re purchasing 100% renewable energy through one of these programs, you can a) genuinely feel good about taking a significant step towards reducing your carbon footprint, and b) know that you’re showing utilities that customers are willing to pay for green power. Even with the abstractions and the ‘buts’, all told it’s a good thing.

Where Can I Find Out What My Options Are & How Much Will It Cost?

Besides the perhaps obvious answer of contacting your utility directly, the easiest way to get an overview of what your options are for purchasing green power is via the DoE’s Green Power Network — where there’s an interactive map detailing your options on a state-by-state basis.

Clicking on my state of New York reveals that, as of the end of 2012, there are 11 different providers of green power in-state, with several offering different mixes of renewable energy at different price points.

Worth noting: Some states have far fewer in-state options (Hawaii, for example, which has only one program pending for homeowners and just on the island of Kauai) and some states have more. New Yorkers actually have it very good when it comes to green power options.

You’ll notice that I keep writing ‘in-state’. That’s because you’re not just limited to buying into a green power program via your utility (which distributes the electricity) and a green power provider (which actually generates it and sends it into the grid).

If you don’t like your local options for purchasing green power, or they don’t exist at all, you can also purchase renewable energy certificates (RECs) from national suppliers — which is what probably the majority of corporations do when claiming they use renewable energy. The DoE also maintains a list of RECs that retail customers can purchase.

Even though the price of installing renewable energy continues to drop — in an increasing number of places and now being cheaper to do so than installing new coal or natural gas power plant capacity — choosing green power over the usual brown power does cost more. As for how much more, depending on where you’re located and what mix of power you buy, it can range from 0.5¢ more per kilowatt-hour to 5¢ more per kWh. Fortunately, those extreme ranges are outlying prices. In most places, you’re paying 1-3¢ more per kWh.

wind power
image via Shutterstock

So What’s the Catch?

There really isn’t a catch in all this, not really — though there are some important issues to be aware of in all this, all of which fall into the category of going into purchasing green power with open eyes, rather than being reasons not to do it. In fact, the only reason I can see not to do it is if you happen to live in a place with very high electricity and the premium price really will push your household finances over the edge of insolvency.

Besides the fact that you’re not directly getting green electricity, but rather just ordinary grid power and supporting green power projects, there are a couple of things to consider in all this.

It’s probably wise to make sure whatever green power provider you choose is certified. There are a couple different certification programs out there, and in scanning the DoE’s latest lists most providers are certified in some way. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that if a program isn’t certified that it’s a scam or anything like that, but independent verification that everything’s on the up and up is always a good idea.

Another thing to spend some time mulling over is the exact mix of electricity your buying. Just using my state of New York as an example, New Yorkers can purchase everything from 100% wind power to 100% biomass, to variations of those, with some small-scale hydropower thrown in. Ask yourself what do you want to support.

It’s ultimately up to you to decide, but I feel better supporting wind power over either biomass or small-scale hydropower. Biomass isn’t always all that it’s cracked up to be, in terms of environmental impact; and while small-scale hydro is far better than large dams for the local ecology, your purchase tells providers what you want more of. So, of those options, I want more wind power (though I personally think solar power is an even better option).

One final thing to consider, more for the future than right now in the overwhelming majority of cases: Pay attention to what, if any, standards for renewable energy are set at the state level. There may be no requirement today for utilities in your area to generate x percentage of their electricity from renewable sources, but if at some time there is, say, a mandate that at least 20% is renewable, then paying more for just 20% or 40% green power isn’t quite the same impact as what it’d be if that mandate weren’t in place.