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August 02, 2011

Five Easy Ways to Get Clean Energy

Twelve days ago, the Sierra Club announced a historic partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies and Michael R. Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City, to retire old coal plants and replace them with clean energy. We know that America's use of coal pollutes our air and water, destabilizes our climate, and even pollutes our politics. That's why our aim is to retire at least one-third of our country's coal plants and scale up the clean energy to replace them as fast as we can. And it's also why Mary Anne Hitt's story is so important.

When Mary Anne and her husband, Than, calculated how much coal it was taking to power their West Virginia home, the answer shocked them. "In just one winter month, when our electricity use was especially high," she says, "our small, historic house consumed more than four tons of coal."

Mary Anne's day job is directing the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. You might have seen her introduce Mayor Bloomberg at our announcement late last month. You'll see that she's passionate about ending mountaintop-removal coal mining and shutting down polluting coal-fired plants. But what could she do about the tons of coal figuratively piling up in her own backyard?

The solution was simple. Mary Anne's rooftop was the first in her neighborhood to get solar panels. From the very first day they were installed, they generated all the electricity her family needed -- and then some. Best of all, she says, was that getting solar installed was "much, much easier" than she had imagined. State and federal tax incentives will let her recoup about a third of the system's cost, and her family will enjoy lower utility bills for years to come.

I love Mary Anne's story because it shows how we can, as Gandhi said, "be the change we wish to see in the world." Here are five easy but effective ways you can change the world as well:

Go solar -- America's rooftops are a huge untapped energy resource. For homeowners, there's never been a better time to invest in solar: Costs have declined significantly, and new financing options are now available. Most people who purchase their own systems are able to recoup the initial expenditure through the savings on their electric bill. In many cases, you can put no money down and still cut costs and coal pollution by leasing from companies like Sierra Club partners Sungevity or SunRun. (If you own a home in the Golden State, be sure to check out the Sierra Club's California pilot program with those two companies.)

Plug in -- If solar power is the answer to dirty coal, then electric vehicles are the antidote to dirty oil. The only catch is if the electricity in your region comes from coal, in which case you need to go back to "go solar." Because with both solar power and a plug-in vehicle, you can be driving on 100 percent sunshine. The cleanest car, of course, is the one you don't drive:

Opt for renewable -- If your utility company offers an option for clean, renewable energy, sign up. In Palo Alto, California, more than one in five residents participate in PaloAltoGreen, a voluntary renewable-energy program that costs just 1.5 cents more per kilowatt-hour. The program has made the city fourth nationwide in green-power sales as a percentage of total retail electricity sales. Find similar programs in your area at green-e.org.

Follow your money -- Ever wonder where fossil fuel corporations get the cash to finance pipelines and power plants? If you have a bank account, stock fund, mortgage, or student loan, your money is likely invested in projects that cook the planet. If your bank funds dirty-energy projects, tell it to be part of the solution, not the problem. My good friends and former colleagues at Rainforest Action Network can get you started.

Spread the word! -- Clean energy is a winner for everyone. It saves money, reduces pollution, and puts people back to work in the growing new clean-energy economy. So don't keep it a secret. After Mary Anne and her husband got their rooftop panels, they held a "solar mixer" for dozens of curious neighbors, and some are already looking into getting their own solar panels.

We need to hold our political leaders accountable for making progress on clean energy, but let's hold ourselves accountable too. If it's easy to create a cleaner, safer, healthier world, why wait?

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