Bainbridge Island’s Green Power Challenge

Jon Quitslund

How much of the electricity used in your home comes from ‘green’ sources? A fair number of households on Bainbridge are now equipped with solar panels, generating for themselves some, if not all, of the power they use.  And a larger number of homes and businesses (1,125 customers as of mid-April of this year) pay a little extra each month on their PSE bills so the electricity they use comes from renewable energy sources.

The number of green energy customers here could be much larger – and should be, considering the amount of angst one hears expressed about increases in atmospheric carbon and the dangers posed, locally and globally, by runaway consumption of fossil fuels.

Did you know that 48% of the electricity PSE generates comes from fossil fuels? (You may have seen an even bigger number; 32% from coal and 16% from natural gas are the state-certified figures from 2011.) The company advertises these facts because they want to be less dependent on coal and gas. And PSE is making real progress: the company now owns and operates enough wind-powered generators to supply approximately 10% of the basic portfolio.

PSE is eager to reward communities in which increasing numbers of customers withdraw their support from polluters and choose to promote alternative energy production. Subscribing to green power takes the company beyond what I-937 (the Clean Energy initiative passed in 2006) requires.

In the local Green Power Challenge that was announced in April, adding 125 more customers on Bainbridge to the list of green power supporters will get the city a $20,000 grant to support a new solar energy project – at the High School, perhaps, or at Wilkes Middle School.

To make things more interesting, PSE has set up a competition: Bainbridge Island is involved with four other communities (Anacortes, Kirkland, Snoqualmie, and Tumwater) to see which can enroll the highest percentage of new customers for green power. Winning that contest will be worth another $20,000.

It ought to be easy to reach the goal of 125 new customers, but getting ahead of our competition and finishing the year in that position will be harder. Win or lose, I think the race will be worthwhile for all concerned. A clean energy future is the over-arching goal, the ‘real work.’

Who is ahead now in the competition? Tumwater! According to PSE’s records as of the end of May, enrollment is up on Bainbridge by .20% (that’s two-tenths of one percent), while Tumwater’s figure is 0.63%.  We’re at mid-year, and we haven’t really gotten started in response to the PSE challenge.

At this point you may want to stop reading and enroll in the Green Power program, which you can do online at PSE.com/GPChallenge, or by phone with a PSE energy advisor at 1-800-562-1482 (any weekday, 8 a. m. to 5 p. m.). You can purchase 100% green power, which at current rates increases your monthly bill by about 10%, or you can purchase specific amounts at the rate of $2 for 160 kWh, for a minimum of $4 per month, up to $14.

My wife and I have not been highly successful in our efforts to conserve electricity; our bills over the past twelve months have ranged between a low of $50.69 in August of last year and a high of $309.51 in February of 2013, for an average of $144.30.

Not having done much in support of the RePower Bainbridge goal of reducing demand for electricity, I decided that purchasing green power was the least I could do.  I signed up for 100% seven months ago, wondering why it had taken me so long.  The cost, between December 2012 and June of this year, has averaged $23.04 per month. This discretionary expense is something I can afford, and it has meaning and value for me. I am participating in a small way, just as I do in voting and with my support for political and non-profit organizations, in positive change and the development of something I believe in.

How does the small amount extra that I am charged on my monthly bill finance the purchase of my electricity from alternative energy producers? I’ll try to explain that, but first let me provide a few facts about the ‘product content’ for PSE basic service and for the green power program.

Cathie Currie, a Sustainable Bainbridge board member who works for PSE, has provided me with information on the green power program and connected me with Heather Mulligan, a colleague in the Bellevue office: Heather has furnished the best available figures on the sources of PSE’s power.

In the 2011 portfolio (2012 figures won’t be state-certified until later this summer), 50% comes from ‘large hydro,’ 32% is generated from coal, and 16% from natural gas. The chart is completed by 1% from nuclear power, and 1% from ‘other’ sources.

On the chart describing the green energy mix as delivered in 2012, 27% came from ‘low-impact hydro,’ 58% from wind, 5% from landfill gas, 9% from livestock methane, and 1% from solar sources. The amount of energy available from wind farms in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho is increasing: it’s estimated to be 74% of the mix in 2013. Solar energy may be up to 4% for this year, while new hydro power declines.

The percentages on these two charts tell one story about dramatic differences in the currently available sources of electric power. There’s another story in the huge differences in scale between the basic program, which produced 24,517,042 megawatt hours of electric power in 2012, and the green power program, which sold 365,796 megawatt hours that year. So green power is 1.5% of the whole PSE picture: the new Jerusalem is still a long way off.

PSE is required by Washington’s public utility commission to provide electricity to its customers at the lowest possible rates. PSE customers who support green energy production can change the demand and supply calculus, so that over time more energy, at lower prices, will come from clean and renewable sources. That’s going to involve continuing investment and innovation.

Let’s hope that the big old power plants burning coal and polluting the air are on the way out, and let’s work toward that goal, but there’s a collateral goal: PSE customers will need other reliable and cost-effective sources for any power that doesn’t come from dirty coal and natural gas obtained by fracking.

You may wonder how the market for green power works. It’s complicated, and I don’t understand all the transactions, but I can tell part of the story, and maybe you’ll agree with me that an appealing story about economic relationships provides value added for customers and investors.

Obviously, when you opt into the green power program the electricity you consume isn’t separate from the mix that serves everyone else.  Whatever you pay, however, finances the purchase of power from regional companies that would otherwise not be participants in PSE’s market.  And PSE doesn’t make a profit from these transactions: state law prohibits that.

PSE contracts with an innovative energy provider (e. g., Qualco Energy in Monroe, WA, a nonprofit that turns pollution from dairy farms into electric power and compost); the provider has a reliable customer and a predictable income. Part of PSE’s cost, borne by green power customers like me, is in the form of ‘renewable energy credits,’ also known as ‘Green Tags,’ which can be sold or traded in the energy marketplace: they assign a dollar value to the environmental benefits of renewable energy.

The benefits of the Green Tag system to a host of small- and large-scale producers, distributors, and consumers of energy are explained well on various websites. Also, you can learn a lot from the websites maintained by several of PSE’s providers of green power: Qualco Energy, Stateline Wind Energy (Umatilla County, OR, and Walla Walla County, WA), and the Nine Canyon Wind Project (Benton County, WA) are three that I picked from the list of ‘Program Resources’ on the PSE Green Power website.

Along with Cathie Currie and others who are promoting the Green Power Challenge on Bainbridge Island, I will be keeping track of the numbers of households and businesses that sign up for PSE’s green power between now and the end of the year.

Why can’t we achieve a 100% increase in enrollments before the snow flies?

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