March 23, 2010

Buying into clean energy

Are you sitting on a green fence?
More than half of American consumers now have the option of purchasing green power directly from their electricity supplier in the form of renewable energy certificates (RECs)—an unfamiliar term to most folks. These certifiy that a green power developer, such as a wind farm, has generated renewable energy and is sending it to your electric grid. An insert in our recent Dominion Virginia Power bills invites us to buy RECs and “make a powerful difference with Dominion Green Power.” The enticing phrase “Green Power” and the promise of free organic fair trade chocolate bars for doing so certainly got my attention. Thus I began many hours sleuthing out the pros and cons of RECs for this posting. . . and I'm still on the fence about them.

I am certainly frustrated by both our dependency on foreign oil and the possibility of another coal-burning plant across the river. But I’ve been skeptical about adding a premium ranging from $2 to $16 to purchase RECs, even though 7400 Dominion customers have signed up already. Karl Neddenien, Dominion’s Media Relations, admits this is a very small percentage of their customers, but says, “Dominion began to offer it in January 2009 because our customers requested a way to support green energy.”

Dominion is not trying to mislead consumers, but there are a lot of misconceptions out there. Before you make any decision, read the myths below:

Myth #1: If you pay a bit more on your electric bill for Dominion Green Power, you are supporting new wind farms and clean energy providers in Virginia. A few renewable projects are under development in Virginia, but we’re nearly a green energy facility wasteland.

Many power companies might be reluctant to explain how extra payments from consumers produce green energy. However, Liz Thomson, Dominion Energy Conservation Analyst, was very open in sharing with me that payments to Dominion Green Power support wind and biomass (paper pulp or landfill gas) facilities in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Illinois.

There’s another misconception also that buying these green power certificates supports the construction of new renewable power. I sifted through a recent Department of Energy technical paper to learn that the industry definition of “new” is “those facilities put into service on or after January 1, 1997.” Is 13 years old new to you?

Finally, there’s the fact that half of the increased Dominion Green Power revenue, which by the way does not go to Dominion but to a third party, is for marketing, customer education, tracking and verifying RECs, and program administration.

Myth #2: Dominion Green Power can provide 100 percent clean energy in the “100% option. Dominion cannot deliver 100 percent renewable power to any customer, since electrons from all sources are mingled—into a vast network of transmission wires, often referred to as “the grid”—before they arrive at your home. Our local “generation mix” of electricity from Dominion is 42 percent from coal-burning power plants; 40 percent from nuclear plants; 11 percent from natural gas; and only 6 percent from hydroelectric and other renewables.

Myth #3: "Clean coal" exists. The truth, unfortunately, is that no large commercial clean coal plants currently operate in the U.S. although much carbon capture research is taking place. Clean coal technology is an expensive concept and many years away from widespread commercial viability. The term still hits many as an oxymoron. Old Dominion Electric Coop estimates that their proposed Surry County coal-burning power plant would emit 14.6 million tons of carbon dioxide and 1.9 million tons of nitrogen annually.
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Dominion's Green Power program received official Green-e Energy certification in September 2009. Green-e is the nation's leading independent consumer protection program for the sale of renewable energy and greenhouse gas reductions in the retail market. It is a program of the Center for Resource Solutions. For more information on Green-e Energy certification requirements, visit http://www.green-e.org/ or call 1-888-63-GREEN.

Selling Point? By purchasing RECs you are paying the difference between market rate and the production rate, allowing clean power producers to enter the market at a competitive price without operating at a loss. Buying RECs should help build a market for renewable electricity. The goal is that it should eventually make the cost of renewable energy more affordable in relation to traditional heavily subsidized energy. If all of us bought them, there might be less demand for more coal-burning power plants, like the one across the James River that’s moving through the permit process right now.

For FAQs about Dominion Green Power, visit their very comprehensive website at http://www.dom.com/dominion-virginia-power/customer-service/energy-conservation/green-power-frequently-asked-questions.jsp

Read the energy-conservation tips Dominion offers at http://e-conserve.blogspot.com/  to help you reduce your power use and your bill. Turn off the lights in your empty rooms, and use the savings for Dominion Green Power RECs (1-888-667-3000 or www.dom.com/VaGreenPower ) if you so choose.

RESOURCES on green power:

EPA's new Guide to Purchasing Green Power at: http://www.epa.gov/greenpower/documents/purchasing_guide_for_web.pdf

Department of Energy (DOE) “Green Power Network” at http://apps3.eere.energy.gov/greenpower/buying/index.shtml

"Can I Buy Green Power in My State?" at http://apps3.eere.energy.gov/greenpower/buying/buying_power.shtml