My electric company offers an option where, for an extra 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, they’ll buy renewable-energy certificates up to the amount of my bill. I would be buying regular energy (a mix of coal, nuclear, some renewables) and somehow there would be a requirement that an equivalent amount of renewable energy be purchased for the grid. They call this their Green Power program. Should I go ahead and sign up for this option?
–Rachel in Falls Church, Virginia
Don't buy into any renewable program unless and until you have first done everything possible to cut your electricity use. People who purchase renewable-power credits without also reducing power consumption are like alcoholics who down as much booze as they want because the vodka's organic. It might help justify your habit but it's bad for the system. Like most states, Virginia has been on an electricity binge, and there isn’t enough renewable power available to make up for the increased consumption.
Besides, you may find that a modest investment in energy conservation is a better bargain than simply buying "clean" energy. Like a growing number of utilities, your power company, Dominion, has a great menu of energy-saving advice at this link.
Still, buying renewable energy does give an economic incentive for companies to invest more in renewables. With its renewables program, Dominion certifies that for each extra 1.5 cents you pay per kilowatt, it will buy a kilowatt of renewable energy to put into its power grid. (Note: The Sierra Club's Virginia Chapter isn't sold on the idea because, they say, that half of the extra money goes into overhead. Dominion counters that the money is needed to administer the program and ensure that the renewable sources are legitimate.)
But back to our national binge. Thanks to the construction of oversized homes, overheating, overcooling, and the introduction of countless new energy-sucking gadgets, Virginia's residential power use has increased a whopping 50 percent since 1981, from less than 4,000 kilowatt-hours per person to almost 6,000. The U.S. per capita consumption also jumped more than 30 percent during this period.
Renewable energy is a fine idea, provided it doesn't do too much collateral damage. But the quickest, cheapest way to address the host of environmental problems caused by burning fossil fuels is to drastically cut our nonsensical electricity waste.