A Guide for Confused Consumers:
Why – and How – You Should Buy Green Power Now
by Walter Simpson
Mr. Simpson is energy officer at SUNY Buffalo.
New York state electric utilities are now offering their residential customers a choice of energy suppliers. In 2002, the list of uppliers increased to include those who provide electricity produced from wind, hydro and biomass renewable energy. It’s easy to sign up and the modest additional cost of “green power” is a small price to pay to promote the clean energy echnologies of the future. Having the choice to buy green power is a long-awaited benefit of the deregulation of the electric industry. Let’s take advantage of it!
What Is “Green Power?”
Green Power is a term used to describe electricity that is enerated using clean energy resources. These resources include wind, solar, biomass (energy from trees and plants), geothermal, and low-impact hydro. Additionally, electricity generated by burning methane gas produced by landfills is considered green power because it is better to burn landfill gas and put it to work than to vent it directly to the atmosphere. Companies selling green power to NiMo and NYSEG customers are providing power from wind turbines, low impact hydro, biomass, and landfill gas.
From an environmental and human health perspective, how does the power I now receive from NiMo or NYSEG or ConEd (electric companies) compare with green power? NiMo’s electricity comes from the following sources: nuclear power (29%), hydro (28%), coal (18%), natural gas (16%), oil (7%), and solid waste (1%). NYSEG’s mix is natural gas (38%), nuclear power (26%), hydro (17%), coal (13%), and oil (5%). Nuclear power produces radioactive wastes, which must be stored for tens of thousands of years, and poses the risk of human exposure to radiation in the event of an accident or terrorist attack. While coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel, burning coal, oil or natural gas in electric generating plants produces emissions which contribute to smog, acid rain (sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides) and global warming (carbon dioxide).
Health Effects of Fossil Fuels
The human health effects of fossil fuel burning are equally troubling. The sulfur dioxide produced by fossil-fired power plants, even at very low levels, is a powerful asthma trigger. And nitrogen oxides are a major contributor to ground level ozone, an ingredient of summer smog. Ozone is a powerful respiratory irritant that burns lung tissue, triggers asthma attacks, and leads to more visits and admissions to hospitals when levels are high. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides also have been linked to fine particle formation. In New York, power plant fine particle emissions cause 1,800 premature deaths, 37,000 asthma attacks, and 1,200 respiratory related hospitalizations each year.
Green is Clean(er)
In contrast, green power is much cleaner. Wind power produces no pollutants. Other impacts can be minor. Properly sited wind farms are visually attractive and appear to have minimal impact on bird populations. Also, wind machines have very small footprints and thus are compatible with farming and other land uses. The operation of one large 1.5 megawatt wind turbine annually prevents 6,175,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, 30,700 pounds of sulfur dioxide, and 12,000 pounds of nitrogen oxides from entering the atmosphere from conventional power plants feeding New York’s grid. The carbon dioxide emissions reduction alone is equal to planting 420,000 trees or not driving almost 7 million miles! Generating electricity from solar photovoltaic panels also produces no emissions, though it is generally not cost competitive at this time. Hydroelectricity produced by smaller, older dams is generally considered “green” because smaller dams individually have relatively low impacts on water flow, water quality, fish, and land use. Biomass can be burned relatively cleanly and it doesn’t contribute to global warming if new crops or plants are grown to replace the ones that are harvested and burned. Wind, solar, hydro, and biomass are examples of renewable energy, all ultimately powered forever by the sun — which rises every morning. Landfill gas is an inevitable byproduct of landfills. While burning this gas is not pollution-free, burning it does put it to use (displacing fossil fuels) and prevents unburned methane from entering the atmosphere where it would act as a potent greenhouse gas and contribute to global warming.
If I buy green power, do I still continue to do business with NiMo or NYSEG? What is the role of my utility? Your electric utility – NiMo or NYSEG or ConEd – will continue to be responsible for the local distribution system and delivery of whatever electricity you purchase for your home. If a power line falls during a storm or a transformer fails, NiMo or NYSEG will be responsible for repair.
How is billing handled? If you are a NiMo customer, you will get one bill that shows costs for delivery (owed to NiMo) as well as costs for the green power you have purchased (owed to your green power supplier). When you pay NiMo, NiMo will make sure your green power supplier is paid. Be patient, it may take as long as two months for your green power purchase to show up on your bill. If you are a NYSEG customer, you will receive two bills – one for NYSEG’s delivery ervices and one for green power. NYSEG’s system does not allow for single billing.
If I have already selected an electricity supplier other than NiMo
or NYSEG, can I buy green power?
Yes, though you may receive an additional bill. Contact the green power supplier of your choice for details. In all cases, NiMo or NYSEG or ConEd will still continue to deliver your electricity.
If I buy green power, how much more will it cost?
Green power costs anywhere from 1.1 to 2.5 cents a kilowatt hour of electricity more than the power currently supplied by your utility. Green power prices vary depending on which supplier you sign up with and what kind of green power you buy. Pricing and product options are shown below. These premiums add a few dollars to your monthly electric bill. For example, if your household consumes 400 kilowatt hours of electricity a month and you spend two cents extra per kilowatt hour to buy green power, your monthly electric bill would increase just $8 – a small price to pay to kick the fossil fuel and nuclear habit!
How can I reduce the cost of green power?
An obvious (and very environmental) way of reducing that additional charge is to reduce the amount of energy you use. In fact, if you conserve enough energy at the same time you buy green power, your overall electric bill might not increase at all! You would benefit and so would the environment!
If I purchase green power, does the clean electricity I buy actually
get to my home? Will only “green electrons” be delivered to my
No. The actual electrons you receive will be a mix of all the electricity produced by power plants and generators connected to the transmission grid. However, your purchase of green power pays for clean energy to go into the grid. As more people buy green power, the number of wind turbines, biomasspowered turbines, and other green generators will increase — gradually changing the mix of generation in favor of cleaner technologies. As the mix changes, the environmental benefits of green power will accrue, and the electric industry will become less polluting. Meanwhile, you can have the satisfaction of being part of the solution and not part of the problem.
How do I know that the green power I am paying for is actually produced
and delivered into the electric grid?
The New York State Public Service Commission matches customer loads with actual green supply in order to make sure no less green power is produced than is sold.
Is green power just as reliable as conventional electric power?
Yes; it travels through the same wires maintained by your electric utility. Moreover, if your green power supplier has an outage and is temporarily unable to supply the grid, your local utility will continue to supply your house with electricity from
conventional sources. Regardless of outages, the full amount of green electricity that you purchase will be supplied to the grid.
Wind and solar are intermittent power sources that generate electricity
when the wind blows and the suns shines. Hydro depends on seasonal rain and
snowfall. How can suppliers of these kinds of green power meet the electricity
demands of their customers?
In order to be able to market intermittent green power generation, special accounting rules had to be established. Here’s how they work. On an hourly or daily basis, your green power producer may not be matching your electrical demand and instead it may be met in part from other sources. But all green power companies authorized to do business with NiMo and NYSEG and ConEd customers must report to the Public Service Commission and demonstrate that every three months they have put
the same amount of electricity into the grid that their customers purchased – thus guaranteeing that sale and generation quantities are the same and that the full promised environmental benefits occur.
What should I look for when purchasing green power? What kind of
green power provides the most environmental benefit for our region and our
While price may be a factor, it’s important to realize that not all green power products are equal. Some are cleaner than others. Biomass, for example, can be so broadly defined to include unsustainably harvested forest timber, contaminated waste wood, municipal solid waste, and tires. Also, some green power products are more likely to be further developed
and thus shift our generating mix toward clean power. Buying wind power is the best option for promoting new renewable energy development in New York – though purchasing electricity produced from a mix of renewables is still much better than receiving electricity from conventional sources. By spending a few extra dollars a month to buy green power for your home, you can significantly reduce your dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear power and help promote a clean, healthy, renewable energy future.
What is the potential of wind energy in New York? Will my green power
purchase really make a difference?
Wind studies indicate that New York may have as much as 10,000 megawatts of wind energy capacity, enough to meet 20% of our electric needs. But, as of January 2003, only 50 megawatts of this capacity – enough for 17,000 households —
has been developed. And of that amount, only 12 megawatts was being sold to consumers at a price high enough to make it worthwhile for wind developers to keep developing more wind farms. Currently, 300 additional megawatts of wind power are being scouted for development in New York. These projects are much more likely to go ahead if the remaining 38 megawatts of existing New York wind capacity is purchased by green power consumers. That small increment of a couple
of cents a kilowatt hour can make all the difference between investment and non-investment in more wind power and the future development of renewable energy in our state.
Buy Green Now!
First, decide what product or option you want and contact the company that offers it. You can sign up with a phone call or
by filling out a form on the company website. You will need your account number from your current electric bill. (Note
that green power suppliers are in the process of refining their product offerings. When you contact these companies, be sure to ask them about all their current green power options in case there have been changes.)
NEW YORK STATE UTILITIES:
ConEd Green Power Options
Niagra Mohawk GreenUp Renewable Energy Options
INDIVIDUAL COMPANIES PROVIDING GREEN POWER TO NY STATE UTILITIES:
Green Mountain Energy
Energy Cooperative of New York
New York Public Interest Group Fuel Buyers Plan
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