Your energy choices make a difference, too

Sound Consumer | October 2005

by Diane Zipper, Renewable Northwest Project

windmills generating electricity

(October 2005) — Our landscapes and communities are shaped by the choices we make as consumers. This understanding motivates us to choose organic and local products when shopping. Good choices also are available when it comes to electricity.

Installing compact fluorescents, being properly weatherized and using energy efficient appliances reduce our energy footprint. Utilities across the Puget Sound area also offer green power options to customers, making it easy to support renewable energy.

By signing up for green power, consumers are helping to bring clean electricity online, and it only costs a few extra dollars each month to participate. For a list of Washington utility green power programs, please visit www.RNP.org/GreenPower/WAutilities.html.

PCC Natural Markets is purchasing electricity through green power programs — at the “Gold” level, 15 percent green power, from City Light, and at the “Leader” level, 10 percent, from Puget Sound Energy. That amounts to 873,947 kilowatts of green power. It’s a lot of energy that PCC is voluntarily choosing to pay more for, at an annual cost of more than $14,000.

“Green power is the environmentally responsible thing to do for a business, such as PCC, that’s centered on sustainability,” says PCC board member, Chantal Stevens. “Our members can help, too. For just $4 per month, Puget Sound Energy customers can buy 200-kilowatt hours of energy from renewable sources. Think of the impact PCC’s 37,000 member households could have. It would send a powerful message that green power is important and worth the investment.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, generating electricity is the single largest source of industrial air pollution in the nation. Burning fossil fuels is a major cause of smog, acid rain and habitat destruction. Additionally, we spend millions of dollars to import gas from other regions and nations. Developing renewable resources in the Northwest will help keep our energy dollars in local economies.

Our region relies on the hydro system to generate power and irrigate crops throughout the Columbia River Basin, an area seeing continuous population and economic growth. But there are limits. Another low water year is again making the constraints of our hydro system apparent, and it is unlikely that any new large-scale dams will be built.

While most of us believe the Northwest relies almost exclusively upon hydropower, more than 40 percent of the electricity we consume actually comes from emissions-forming fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas.

Power generated by harnessing solar, wind, geothermal and biomass resources provides significant environmental benefits. Renewable resources produce little or no water pollution, air pollution, or greenhouse gas emissions, and create no toxic, solid or nuclear wastes. Shifting our electricity system towards renewables keeps the air clean and preserves our quality of life.

Renewable energy also can significantly benefit our local economies. Wind projects in particular strengthen local tax bases, create jobs and bring an additional source of income to landowners. Farmers and ranchers who lease their land to wind developers receive annual royalty payments of between $2,000 and $4,000 for each turbine sited on their property.

There are two utility-scale wind projects operating near Walla Walla and the Tri Cities, generating enough power to serve nearly 60,000 households annually. Local solar projects exist throughout Puget Sound, at PCC’s Fremont store, Islandwood on Bainbridge Island, Ballard High School and the Ballard Library, at the University of Washington, the Seattle Center, the Seattle Federal Courthouse, the IBEW Solar Training Facility in Renton, Woodland Park Zoo, and even on the state capitol building in Olympia.

Our members can help, too. For just $4 per month, Puget Sound Energy customers can buy 200-kilowatt hours of energy from renewable sources. Think of the impact PCC’s 37,000 member households could have.

Recently passed state legislation also is helping promote renewables. SB 5101 established a renewable energy “feed-in” production incentive, modeled after a successful German program. With this first statewide program of its kind in the United States., homes and businesses with solar photovoltaics, wind power systems and anaerobic digesters will earn 15 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated by their own renewable energy systems.

If the project’s components are manufactured in Washington, this figure increases to as much as 54 cents, up to $2,000 annually. The program will be in effect for nine years and gives home and business owners the opportunity to invest in their own clean energy production.

What if putting up a wind turbine or a solar panel isn’t an option for you? You can still support renewable energy by participating in your utility’s green power program. By signing up for green power, you’re using your electricity dollars to bring clean resources online.

Like most organic products, it costs a little bit more up front, but the end result benefits our health and our environment. Because these are voluntary programs, utilities are obligated to meet customer demand, pushing the market forward. As more renewables come online, the least-efficient resources are run less often — largely old coal facilities and high-cost gas power plants.

In 2004, more than 85,000 Northwest customers participated in a utility green power program, purchasing more than 550 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of renewable energy. These purchases have positive environmental and economic benefits.

The average Northwest household uses 1,000 kWh of electricity each month. Switching just 10 percent of your electricity to renewable power is equivalent to planting more than 1/3 acre of trees, not driving the average car 1,800 miles, or displacing 1,680 pounds of carbon dioxide, the leading global warming gas.

Beyond bringing more renewable energy resources online, purchasing green power also sends a message to utilities, policymakers and energy developers that clean air, clean water and a healthy, diverse economy are important.

As utilities become more familiar with renewable energy through green power programs, they begin to integrate it into their long-term planning processes. Developers will continue to be drawn to the region, and policymakers will look for additional ways to remove barriers to and create incentives for renewable energy development.

In the past few years, local utilities have stepped forward with commitments to renewable energy. Seattle City Light is purchasing significant amounts of wind and low-impact hydropower to help reach its goal of “Net Zero” greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2005. And Puget Sound Energy has plans to purchase 380 megawatts of wind power in the next two years — enough to serve 126,000 households. Both utilities also offer a green power program so customers can go beyond what they are doing.

Each time we purchase local and organic products, we make a choice to support our communities and our environment. Purchase renewable energy at your home and business, because your energy choices make a difference, too.

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