Choosing Green Energy

What are my options?

If you are trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle, a good place to make changes is your electricity. Electricity is a major contributor to emissions and can have negative effects on air quality, water, and climate. Yet we all use electricity every day, and we can’t really let go if it. Electricity has been getting cleaner over the last few decades, in part due to regulations, but also due to the impact of consumer choice; your choices can have an impact. While many  people are not able to shop around between electricity companies, you may have more choices than you think. This article will review a few of the choices available and tools to help you decide what works best for you.

Rooftop solar being installed. Source: Edwards Air force Base.
Rooftop solar

Rooftop solar panels are probably the first option people think of when considering ways to make their electricity green. It is a very visible contribution to changing the electricity mix. However, there are a lot of factors that impact whether solar panels are the best option for you.

First, unless you are a homeowner, it is unlikely that you will be able to install solar panels on your roof. This is a limitation for many people. Even if you own your home, your roof may not be able to capture much sunlight, due to tree cover or nearby buildings. There are several online tools that can help you determine whether solar panels are a good investment for you.

While the cost has decreased in recent years, solar panels can still be quite expensive. It is important to figure out what mechanisms are in place to make them more affordable. For example, many states offer tax credits. You also need to determine what options you have with your power company. In most cases, you will buy some electricity from a utility company and sell some back. The policy of your power company or state can impact the long-term cost or benefit of putting solar panels on your roof.

Installing the solar panels themselves can be expensive in its own right. There are also companies and programs that help homeowners install solar panels if they cannot afford the high initial price, through financing or leasing options. In some cases, you pay off the installation over time using the cost savings on your power bill.

If you are considering solar panels, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has developed a map-based tool to help determine if solar might be a good fit in your area, particularly focused on low and moderate income (LMI) households. You don’t have to be rich to benefit from solar!

This figure was made using the NREL Solar for All map tool and represents the potential electric bill savings for low- and moderate-income households across the US. Source: NREL Solar for All.

However, there are other options to green your electricity use even if you don’t fit these qualifications.

Buy someone else’s green energy

Green energy credits or renewable energy certificates are a representation of the environmental benefits of renewable energy. This purchase does not consist of any electricity to power your home, but is instead a contribution toward lower-emitting electricity in the US. This may be a good option if you want to support cleaner electricity, but live in an area where the resources for renewable energy are not abundant; calm winds and overcast skies may make for pleasant afternoons, but are not great for renewable electricity generation. Or, maybe you live in an area where the grid is already very clean and you want to do more.

One caveat regarding green energy credits is that some people lament a potential double counting effect. Person A may feel good about installing solar panels, but the credit is sold to Person B. In this case, both people think they are making a difference for the same energy. Someone was probably going to buy those credits either way, but you may want to look at your contract if you’re the one installing the solar panels. This is described more fully here.

A diagram showing how RECs work.

Similar to buying green energy credits, some utility companies offer a green power program. This program often appears as an extra charge on your utility bill. The money ensures some fraction of your usage or a total quantity electricity is generated through renewable sources. Even consumers that cannot switch utility companies often have access to this type of program.

Look through your power bill or search your utility company’s website to see if it’s available! You can also take it a step further: if you do have a choice in utility companies, there is likely to be one company that offers a greener mix than others. This program will not change the electricity going directly to your house, but it will lead to a higher fraction of the electricity on the grid coming from green sources.

Community solar

There are many reasons you might not own a house, but might want to invest in solar. Downsizing to an apartment or condo may even be part of your sustainability plan. One fairly recent option is community solar, sometimes called a solar garden. This is a larger array of solar panels that is not on a single household but in a common location and electricity is shared by (or credited to) several households, but the basic idea is that a group, rather than an individual, invests money into a solar project and benefit from the addition of emission free electricity to their power grid. There are several different structures, explained in more detail in a report by NREL.

What else?

Before you make a decision, it is important to look at your local options. Resource availability (e.g. how much sunshine you get), policy (e.g. net metering, tax credits, home owners associations), and your power company will likely be factors in your decision. This guide summarizes what options may be available to you, the consumer.

Maybe none of these options are a great choice for you right now. There are still other ways you can contribute to reducing the environmental impacts of your electricity use. You can purchase more efficient devices, often denoted with the Energy Star label. These will save you money over the course of your ownership of the device, and because you will have to purchase less electricity, you will also reduce the associated emissions. You can also unplug devices when they aren’t in use, and turn off lights when you’re not in that room. Other ways to save energy in your home can include improving insulation to save on heating and cooling, nudging the thermostat a degree or two colder in winter and warmer in summer, and using more efficient lighting like LED bulbs. Sometimes you can even get a discount on these through local incentives from your city or power company.

Try some of the suggestions above to reduce your emissions! Whatever steps you choose to take matter: if we’re going to reduce the dangerous impacts of climate change, electricity is going to play an important part.

 

Other References and Resources

Community solar (NREL): https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy11osti/49930.pdf

Rooftop solar tools (NREL): https://maps.nrel.gov/solar-for-all/      https://sam.nrel.gov/

Double counting credits (Berkeley): https://energyathaas.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/double-counting-virtue/

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Kristen Brown

Kristen Brown

I am a postdoctoral researcher at the EPA where I specialize in evaluating environmental impacts of our energy system. I have a PhD in Environmental Engineering from CU Boulder where I also received a master’s in Mechanical Engineering, and I have a BA in Physics from Cal Berkeley. Outside of work, I’m an amateur boxer and have two spoiled dogs. You can follow me on twitter at @Kris10BrownPhD.

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