The frequency of extreme weather events, resulting in more flooding, and other impacts of climate change are sounding the alarm about the amount of carbon dioxide each of us puts into the environment. Given that 40 percent of U.S. energy consumption is attributable to buildings, one of the easiest and most significant ways to reduce your carbon footprint is to purchase electricity from a green energy supplier.
To introduce Woodstock residents to the current options and answer questions about making the switch from conventional electricity providers to a Green Energy Supplier, or Green ESCO, as it is called, Catskill Mountainkeeper and Woodstock NY Transition, in partnership with the Woodstock Environmental Commission (WEC), held a public forum at the town offices on the evening of December 3. About 25 people attended.
Kathy Nolan, regional director for the high peaks at Catskill Mountainkeeper, invited nine ESCOs to the meeting, in hopes that the green energy suppliers themselves would be on hand to answer questions. Only two — Green Mountain Energy Company, based in Austin, Texas, and Connecticut-based Viridian Energy — responded, and only Viridian sent representatives to the forum. (Green Mountain submitted a statement in lieu of sending their New York rep, who wasn’t available.)
ESCOs purchase electricity from renewable suppliers, which in Viridian’s case consists of producers of wind, biomass, and recaptured methane. Viridian representative Christine Dempsey said two compelling reasons to switch to an ESCO are that “electrical companies purchase electricity on the wholesale market from sources that are not necessarily the cheapest or greenest sources” and “electrical production is more polluting than any other industry.”
She noted that deregulation of the state’s electrical industry in the late 1990s, in which the utilities sold off their generating facilities and began buying energy on the open market, be it from coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear, wind, or other power source, gave customers the choice to purchase their power from other energy suppliers.
Viridian offers two options: customers can purchase 50 percent of their electricity from a mix of renewable sources or 100 percent from wind. In the first instance, Viridian purchases its renewable energy from a variety of sources, including a biomass facility near Buffalo, a hydro-electric plant near Saratoga, and wind farms in Pennsylvania and other states.
She said Viridian, which was founded in 2009 and currently serves 10 states, is involved in many renewable energy initiatives, from installation of solar power in villages in West Africa to restoration of the Amazon rain forest. The company also supports carbon offsets for corporate travel, including all athletes participating in the U.S. Open. Closer to home, it contributes to New York City’s “Cool Roofs” program, in which roofs are painted white to better reflect the sun’s rays and reduce heat, and participates in local sustainability programs, including the “Clean Sweeps” held in New Paltz and Kingston.
Dempsey noted that all of Viridian’s renewable energy purchases are certified by a third-party verifier and posted on its website. The company purchases what’s called Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), each equal to one megawatt hour of renewable energy, which has a serial number and is retired once the purchase has been made. The purchases are listed on its website, for transparency. “It’s proof that the company is operating to a certain standard,” she said. “Every ESCO should have proof of REC, with a list of serial numbers of RECs purchased from every facility.”
Audience member Gay Leonhardt noted that not all renewable energy sources are created equal when it comes to carbon emissions. “Whether you’re burning biomass or oil, it doesn’t matter. Is there a section about not putting carbon in the atmosphere? My main concern is global warming,” she said.
Dempsey responded that “there’s a distinction between carbon sequestration and biomass, which leaches into the atmosphere” anyway. If biomass burning is nonetheless a concern, “there is the 100 percent wind option.”
Taking on a higher cost
Dempsey said the rate structures are complicated and variable. Another Viridian representative who attended the meeting, Barbara Strnadova, said Viridian’s parent company, Crius Energy, purchases green energy in bulk with other green energy companies to get the best rate. She added that “we’re transparent in our pricing” and people can choose from “variable and fixed rates. They vary a lot,” according to the fluctuations in demand. Pricewise, “the 50 percent option is the same or lower than the Central Hudson rate and is better than 100 percent wind, which is the same or higher than Central Hudson.”
Strnadova also explained that a significant portion of the charges on one’s utility bill are for the delivery of electricity through power lines and other infrastructure, rather than supply. “Central Hudson makes from two thirds to a third of its profit on the delivery of electricity,” she said.
Dempsey said electricity in New York was purchased months in advance in a complicated auction process and noted that rates are predicted to go up. “Our CEO [Michael Fallquist] said rates now are slightly higher than last year and will seem like a bargain compared to rates this spring, which will rise across the board,” she said, without explaining why.
She bemoaned the lack of government support for renewable energy and said grassroots buy-in from the public was the only way the industry can grow. “The government is not pushing green energy as much as it is subsidizing the oil and gas industry,” she said. “The only way to drive the market is at the consumer level. The big facilities producing electricity can’t build more unless demand increases. You can’t just look at the rates.”
Nolan noted that while many European countries charge a “feed-in tariff” across the board to help fund wind farms, no such tax exists in New York State. “Maybe we need to have consumers drive this, as if there were a feed in tariff,” she said. “Green energy suppliers are a barometer of how willing the public is to pay an extra fee for pricing to get wind.
“If you want to save the planet, people need to say ‘I will take a higher cost and make the shift.”
The lack of government buy-in for renewables is a red flag that “your vote counts,” commented WEC vice chair Mary Philips Burke. “Changing your mindset is protecting us and our kids. How do we get this across so people are willing to pay extra? That’s my major concern, particularly with hydrofracking [of natural gas], which will result in even more destruction if it continues.”
Another audience member noted that “the taxes we are paying for fossil fuels amount to $6,000 per family. The health impact is a tax we all pay for subsidizing fossil fuels.”