The power of green power

Purchasing renewable energy reduces greenhouse gases

Hail to the windmill.

Hail to the windmill.

Sustainable Space columnists Lori Brown and Greg Kallio are professors in the College of Engineering, Computer Science and Construction Management at Chico State University.

Ugly energy
Nearly 70 percent of all U.S. electricity is generated from fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. The remaining 30 percent comes from sources such as hydroelectric power plants and renewable energy. Producing the electricity demanded by Americans is a dirty job—ecologically and economically. The environmental impacts are often obvious, especially in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, where the sky is perennially rimmed with thick, brown smog. Land impacts from drilling and mining for fossil fuels are equally disturbing. Selling a product with a huge demand and basically zero shelf life creates an interesting and often sticky situation for the supplier and users. With a product nearly everyone needs or wants and with very few in a position to produce it themselves, suppliers are at an advantage when it comes to setting a price. However, that’s a column for another time. This one is about green power.

Green options
The World Resources Institute views green power as energy that’s generated from resources that have a relatively low impact on the health of humans, animals and the ecosystem. Examples of green-power energy sources are solar, wind and geothermal. Renewable energy can be produced on-site, using resources like sun exposure on photovoltaic panels, or purchased from a green-power provider. Almost all electricity generated in the United States, whether produced by fossil fuels or renewable resources, travels over the least-resistive path into an electricity grid—or power pool—fed by numerous electricity producers. The electricity is then delivered over local transmission lines to consumers. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know whether the electrons you receive are created from a coal-burning power plant or from a wind farm.

Above and beyond
The U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system encourages new commercial-building owners to purchase grid-source green power (EA Credit 6). This credit requires projects to purchase at least 35 percent of the building’s estimated electricity consumption for two years from a “Green-e” certified provider. The nonprofit Center for Resource Solutions administers the Green-e Certification Program.

Purchasing locally produced grid-source green power that is also directly consumed by the building is not available in most cities. So, for EA Credit 6, building owners can choose to purchase both the building’s needed electricity from their local utility provider and purchase grid-source green power from a Green-e certified source. This approach is similar to purchasing a “carbon offset” for flying when purchasing airline tickets and results in the cost having a premium attached to it. Green-e certified power is sold on the open market as Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs). Buying them is a big step companies can take to reduce greenhouse gases.

Doin’ it right
Of course, commercial buildings and companies don’t have to earn LEED certification to participate in helping to green our energy supply. For example, Lundberg Family Farms offsets 100 percent of the electricity use at its offices and processing facility with RECs simply because it’s the right thing to do.