Back in April, I participated in the March for Science here in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a city that has seen the very real and harsh effects of being irresponsible stewards of our environment. Our mills–which built Carnegie’s wealth and later his repentant philanthropic legacy–almost destroyed our region.
A mixture of EPA regulations and globalization leading to the weakening of labor unions eventually shut down our mills, and the city did a 180.
Today our city is gorgeous. It’s green. It’s lush. We have rivers and mountains and some of the best skyline viewing points in the world. Our two greatest sources of GDP are healthcare and education, we’re a growing tech hub, and there are free, family-friendly events all the time.
But we bear the scars of our history. Our air quality is among the worst in the nation, causing endemic childhood asthma. Our soil contains lead. In a coincidence void of correlation, many city residents’ water now contains lead, too.
Making the Environment Personal
Our environment is changing. We are causing that change in a very real and negative way. It is possible that during my children’s lifetimes, they will face daily challenges far more intimidating than setting up automatic transfers and credit card debt.
But ultimately, it’s hard to feel like anything you do matters when the problem is so massive and systemic.
An Introduction to Green Energy
We don’t own, so I had pretty much given up on green energy in our home.
But at the March for Science, there were booths and vendors everywhere. One of those vendors was a “green energy company.” They generate green energy, and then sell it to the main utility who delivers it. Here in Pennsylvania, we have a choice of who generates our energy, but I didn’t know you could go green with it for a comparable price.
The guy started talking me up, and wanted me to sign up before I left. He was afraid I wouldn’t do it after I went home.
In a way he was right. It’s five months later and I’m only just now writing this post.
But he also wanted me to commit with limited information. I started asking him hard questions like where, exactly, was the energy was produced? How long was a fixed rate contract good for, and what did the rates go up to after our initial agreement expired? Did they offer assistance programs to low-income families like the main electric provider does?
He tried to get me away from the booth at this point. I was seriously bummed, because I did want green energy, but these people were obviously shady as all get out.
How to Get Solar Energy Without Solar Panels
I came home and started doing some research. It turns out, I was right to question the man at that booth. They used the term “green energy” for a variety of different energy sources, including dirty–or “recycled”–energy they had bought off of other companies.
I discovered there are quite a few companies touting their green-ness, but very few of them made me feel good about making the switch. If I was going to pay a few cents more per kilowatt hour, I wanted to know I was actually saving the planet.
When you switch to green energy, it’s not like you start getting different electricity in your home than your neighbors. Electricity is made up of electrons, and those electrons are bought by the company that delivers your energy. At this point, the energy is homogeneous–regardless of where it was generated.
There are laws in place requiring the utility provider to purchase a certain amount of energy from green sources. They do this through Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs.) If more customers start demanding more green energy, it is possible that utilities will start purchasing more RECs than legally required.
This is a good thing, as it moves us away from environment-destroying energy sources and onto more sustainable ones.
As a consumer, you don’t necessarily have to have solar panels to get solar energy. You just need to pick a green company to generate your electricity, encouraging demand and therefore growth in the sector.
Questions to Ask Before Switching to Green Energy
I asked a lot of companies questions, and in the end I was most satisfied with the answers from CleanChoice Energy. They’re not just in Pittsburgh! They currently service a lot of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states–plus Illinois and DC.
Our new rate is going to be 2 cents more per kilowatt hour, which raises our bill by $12-$14 per month. The slight increase is something I’m willing to prioritize in my budget.
You can check and see if they serve your zip code. Right now they’re running a promo where they’ll give you a $25 VISA gift card when you sign up.
Here are the questions I asked them, and the answers they gave.
Does all of your energy come from solar and/or wind farms?
Do you use “recycled” energy stored from nuclear, natural gas or any carbon-emitting sources?
“One hundred percent of our energy comes from wind and solar farms,” said Kate Colarulli, CleanChoice Energy’s Director of Retention Marketing. “Our Standard Clean Plan is Green-e certified and meets the environmental and consumer protection standards of the Center for Resource Solutions.”
“We meet or exceed all EPA guidelines for renewable energy,” she continued, “and we apply strict standards to ensure that we source our energy from as close to our customers as possible. If you burn it, we don’t supply it.”
CleanChoice Energy was the only company in my region that gave me such a clear and straightforward answer.
How long is a contract? Do you offer fixed rates?
Colarulli told me that you can choose between fixed and variable rates. I recommend the former, personally, as you’ll know what to expect out of your electric bill month after month.
The fixed-rate plans came with a contract. Your rate stays fixed for that entire term. Our contract offer was twelve months. You can, conceivably, switch between fixed and variable rates as there is no fee for doing so, but that’s a lot to keep on top of every month.
CleanChoice contacts you before your renewal date with the new rate offer for the next twelve months. I’ll be interested to see what happens at that point, and will update you all on any pricing changes. The worst-case scenario is we switch back to the standard utility if we hit a huge price hike, but I don’t anticipate having to do that.
Do you participate in CAP, LIHEAP or any other low-income programs?
CAP is a low-income assistance program. Funds are used to pay a part of your electricity bill if you fall below a certain income threshold.
LIHEAP is a program that assists low-income households with their heating bills in the winter. If, like us, your heat is run through electric, they can help with your electric bill instead.
This was the most frustrating part for me. I couldn’t find a single company that participated in these programs. We’re not on either of these programs at this time, but if you’re trying to save the world, wouldn’t you want to make solar and wind energy available to low-income households, as well?
I found out that it’s a little more complicated than that. Colarulli was the only one who took the time to explain that while they can participate in some states, they cannot participate in others. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania is not one of those states.
Switching to Green Energy is Easy
After I had done all the research, I was surprised at just how simple it was to switch. It took me literally one minute.
First, I entered my zip code.
Then, they asked for the name, service address and customer number.
I gave it to them, and I was done.
I’ll let you all know how this foray turns out. I’m feeling pretty psyched about it right now, though, as it enables us to do solar without the panels, and gives us more control over our carbon footprint.
If we all took one minute to make a simple switch, essentially pledging $10-$20 per month to save the planet, maybe we could actually make a noticeable impact. Lord knows we need to.