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Living Green


by Jennifer Scott

You don't need a wind turbine in the backyard, or solar panels on the roof, to power your home with renewable energy: More people than ever are getting it through their local utility. Renewable, or "green," electricity is produced from environmentally friendly resources, which means no coal, oil, or natural gas. Since 1998, the number of providers that offer some form of green electricity has grown tenfold, to more than 300; nearly half of all customers in America today can choose to buy green power for their homes. So why does it still account for only 2 percent of the electricity we use (especially with everyone talking about "energy independence")? Ask anyone who's ever tried to speak with an actual human at the local electric company by phone. But you don't have to get tangled up in red tape to sign up for green power. Just look for your state below and follow our directions. And since old-fashioned fossil-fuel power plants account for an enormous amount of pollution (an amount equivalent to the carbon dioxide produced by 400 million cars), by making the switch now, you really can make a difference.

Multiple Choice

In deregulated, competitive-market states, you can choose your supplier (which generates your electricity), but you're stuck with your delivery company (which delivers that electricity to your home and bills you). That said, some delivery companies do offer their customers green power, most likely as green blocks but sometimes as blended electricity (see "Power Vocabulary," right). Find out if yours is one of them: Check the company's website (the address is probably on your bill). Look for links to "environment," "green power," or "renewable energy." Signing up is often as easy as filling out a form online.

If your delivery company doesn't offer green power, try switching to a greener supplier. Start by looking for green power suppliers in your state at the U.S. Department of Energy's renewable energy website. Products independently certified by Green-e or Environmental Resources Trust (ERT) are sure to come from renewable sources. Next, find out whether any of these suppliers serve your area. Check with your delivery company (hint: Look for website links like "customer choice," "energy choice," or "energy suppliers") or your state's public utilities commission. Then contact the suppliers directly for product and price information, and for instructions on how to sign up (again, often as simple as an online form). Once you've switched, your electric bill will continue to come from your delivery company but will include your new supplier's prices.

Restrictions Apply
Widespread availability: AL, AZ, CA, CO, GA, MI, MN, NC, ND, NE, OR, SD, TN, WA, WI
Limited availability: FL, HI, IA, ID, IN, KY, MO, MS, MT, NM, OH, SC, TX*, UT, VT, WY

In regulated states and those with limited competition, your utility may offer you the choice of green power. Availability varies widely depending on your state. Utilities in some, such as New Mexico and Minnesota, are required by law to offer "green pricing," while in others, such as Missouri, only one utility serving one small area offers the choice. You'll find an up-to-date, state-by-state list of green-pricing programs at the Energy Department's website. If your utility is listed, phone or visit its website (contact information is probably printed on your bill) to learn more about what it offers and how to sign up. Some utilities make switching easy by putting an enrollment form online. Be sure you understand what you're paying for: While most utilities that offer green power sell green blocks, some utilities sell what are, in effect, green tags, meaning that the green power you're paying for isn't part of the electricity that's coming to your home.

In the Dark

Sorry -- you live in one of the 13 states that offer no green power to residential customers. Electricity providers in states such as Oklahoma and Rhode Island are very close to unveiling green power alternatives. Check for updates at Meanwhile, you can support renewable energy by buying green tags. Green-e, the industry's primary certifying organization, has a list of bona fide ones at certified_products.html.

Sticker Shock
Yes, green power costs more than traditional power. Although sustainable sources like the sun and wind are essentially free, the facilities needed to harness their energy are expensive to set up. But as demand grows, prices keep coming down. If you're on a budget, start small. Some utilities allow you to buy as little as one 100 kWh block of wind power per month, which has a big impact: In terms of carbon dioxide emissions alone, it's like driving your car 2,000 fewer miles. So what does it cost to make the switch? Some examples:

100% renewable electricity
50% blended electricity
100% green block electricity

* If you live in Texas, visit to find out whether your area is regulated or deregulated.

Also known as "percentage" electricity, because green power is combined with old-fashioned power, resulting in electricity that can be anywhere from 2 percent to 99 percent green, depending on the product. Blended electricity is sold by nearly 20 suppliers in seven competitive-market states, in the District of Columbia, and by utilities in a few regulated states.

Electricity sold in units ("blocks") of power that are 100 percent green. When you buy a 100 kWh (kilowatt-hour) green block, 100 kWh of green power is added to your utility's electricity pool, displacing 100 kWh of old-fashioned electricity. Block products are most commonly sold in regulated states.

Also known as "green-energy certificates" and "tradable renewable certificates." You can buy green tags no matter where you live: They're not part of your utility bill, but a way to show your support for green power. Think of them as tax-deductible charitable contributions. The organizations that sell them use the money to develop renewable energy resources and to add green electricity to the power supply in places where it is already available.

For other tips on environmentally conscious living from OnEarth magazine, visit the Living Green index page.

Illustrations: Joyce Hesselberth

OnEarth. Summer 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council