July 15, 2008

Know Your Green Energy Options

By Mark McClain

On July 2, Appalachian Power announced plans to offer a renewable energy option to Virginia customers starting Sept. 1. Under this proposal, utility customers could voluntarily pay an additional 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour to purchase electricity that is made without emission of greenhouse gas and other harmful pollution. Let's look under the hood of this proposal to see how good a deal it is for the environment and citizens.

First, let's explode a common myth. When you purchase this green power, it does not mean that the juice coming into your house will be from a renewable source. The electrons that power your lights and appliances will still come mostly from coal-fired power plants. It's a bit like a bank transfer. When you send money to someone across the country, they don't get the same greenbacks that you deposited. It's just a bookkeeping entry.

Under the Appalachian proposal, you would be paying for existing renewable energy credits that the company obtained from buying electricity from a hydroelectric plant in West Virginia. When you purchased your green power, you would be retiring those credits so that Appalachian couldn't use them to satisfy Virginia's voluntary Renewable Energy Standard. So does this mean that more green power would be produced because of your payment? Well, yes, but only if Appalachian lives up to its promise of generating more power from renewable sources. So is it a good thing? I hope so.

This program is really a way for citizens to atone for their share of the pollution from fossil fuel energy by subsidizing renewable energy production. This is often referred to as offsetting your carbon footprint, since carbon dioxide, or CO2, is the main greenhouse gas from fossil fuel combustion. Besides the Appalachian proposal, there are many other ways to offset your CO2.

Carbon offsets are sold in units of 1 ton of CO2 equivalent. The sellers, often nonprofit organizations, use the money to support activities such as generation of renewable energy, energy efficiency projects and reforestation projects that provide a carbon sink for CO2 emissions. The Appalachian proposal has a CO2 offset cost of about $16 per ton, based on a reliable calculation of the CO2 emissions from electricity generation in our region. How does this compare with other carbon offset options?

Of the many reputable organizations that offer carbon offsets on the Internet, let's look at the cost of two of the better known ones. Nativeenergy.com offers offsets for $12 per ton. It uses the money to support wind turbine generators and dairy farm methane energy generation. Carbonfund.org, which claims to be the largest nonprofit certified carbon offset provider, charges just over $9 per ton. It uses the money to support solar and wind energy projects.

There is a local option. The Roanoke Valley Cool Cities Coalition offers carbon offsets that are based on efficiency, the cheapest form of renewable energy. Through our distribution of free compact fluorescent lights, we have already offset about 1,400 tons of CO2 emissions. Cost per ton: just over $7.

Like the Carbonfund.org program, this offset is not a purchase, but a tax-deductible donation. An additional benefit of this local green energy option is that a substantial percentage of the CFLs we've given away have been in collaboration with other local nonprofit groups and have benefited disadvantaged citizens by lowering their utility bills.

How can it be possible that a local nonprofit can offer this service at a cost much lower than Appalachian or national nonprofits? In part, it's because our organization is run entirely by volunteers who acquire and distribute the CFLs without pay. If you're skeptical about this scheme, one of our board members would be glad to visit with you about it. You'll find contact information on our Web site: rvccc.org.

I hope everyone will participate in some green energy program, and I appreciate the opportunity to shed some light on the various options.

McClain, of Salem, is director and treasurer of the Roanoke Valley Cool Cities Coalition.

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