Checkbook environmentalism

SMUD will assuage your global-warming guilt—for a fee.

What’s your carbon toot-print?

What’s your carbon toot-print?

Courtesy Of SMUD

Oh the guilt. One can’t live a basic modern life anymore without wondering, “What would Al Gore do?” You could get going early and ride your bike or walk to work. But you’re lazy and in a hurry. You could switch out all those incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescents. But you don’t like fluorescent light bulbs. You could turn the thermostat down in the winter, and up in the summer. But then you’d be too cold, or too hot.

Isn’t there a way to make these annoying everyday ethical problems go away, while still enjoying your hard-earned American way of life?

Indeed, there is. You can write a check to SMUD and your greenhouse guilt will go away.

Wait, wait, your local utility doesn’t want you to look at it that way. Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s “Our Green Community” program is definitely not being marketed as a way to greenwash your conscience.

But they do want you to participate in the new program, which allows customers to figure out approximately how much greenhouse pollution they spew into the environment every year. They figure that if you feel even a little bit bad about all of the ways in which you’re helping to warm the planet, you might part with a little of your disposable income to fund local projects that will make up for that pollution.

You start by navigating to SMUD’s new Web site,, where you can find a “carbon calculator” to come up with a figure that represents your carbon tonnage.

The calculator takes into account your monthly energy bills, the make, model and year of your car or cars, and how many miles you drive every year. It totals up miles traveled by airplane every year, and even has a (very rough) method of calculating how what you eat, (local, organic, etc.) contributes to your personal greenhouse gas inventory.

SMUD’s project manager Ali Crawford said that the utility looked at a lot of different carbon calculators—the ubiquitous programs have been popping up all over the web the past couple years. Most, Crawford said, weren’t that accurate for people living in the Central Valley of California, which has its own unique climate and energy profiles.

As it turns out, the average SMUD customer is responsible for about 20 metric tons of greenhouse gases every year, mostly carbon dioxide.

Naturally, SMUD’s Web site offers some helpful suggestions, which by now many people will know by heart: set your thermostat two degrees lower, carpool or bike to work at least once a week, shop at the farmers’ market at least twice a month. All good things, signs of “personal virtue,” as our soon-to-be ex vice president once declared. But if you eat, drive, use electricity, these things won’t make a huge difference in your overall carbon footprint.

Enter the “carbon offset.” For a monthly fee, SMUD will take your money and fund local projects that take greenhouse gases out of the air.

The couple of times this reporter tried calculating how much it would cost to go “carbon neutral,” the total came out to between $25 and $30 a month. Not cheap, but then again, it’s not hard to blow $30 on something less virtuous.

And SMUD gives you some options—you can pay to offset half, all, or even twice your annual greenhouse-gas emissions. And, said Crawford, SMUD “guarantees” to offset your emissions. If you pay to offset 10 tons of greenhouse gases, SMUD will see to it that they disappear.

How do they do it? Two words: cow poop.

If you sign up now, your money will go to fund two “dairy digester” projects in southern Sacramento County.

The digester traps and collects methane gas that would otherwise escape from decomposing cow manure on large dairy farms.

When they talk about greenhouse gas emissions, scientists and regulators almost always talk about carbon dioxide. But methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, because its molecular structure traps heat in the atmosphere more effectively than CO2.

But, methane is also a simple hydrocarbon (one carbon atom, surrounded by four hydrogen atoms). It’s the main ingredient in the natural gas we use to run most of our electric grid.

In the dairy digester, the methane will be collected from under what amounts to a tarp, and piped to gas powered electrical turbines. There’s still some net pollution produced, mostly in the form of carbon dioxide that is created when the methane is combusted to fire the generator. But the net benefit, according to SMUD engineer Obadiah Bartholomy, is close to 21 to 1.

As an added incentive for the local farmers, they get to run their operations on the electricity produced there, and sell the extra back to SMUD. And SMUD considers the methane fuel to be renewable energy.

(By the way, SMUD says that it would take roughly 5 to 8 cows to supply enough electricity to power the average Sacramento single-family home.)

The projects are expected to be up and running this year, and will cost somewhere between $800,000 to $1.2 million to build. SMUD has promised to pay 13 percent of the capital costs of the two dairy digesters—in the neighborhood of $100,000 to $150,000—to make the projects pencil out for the farmers. That money will be repaid by SMUD customers who sign up to offset their personal emissions.

Overall, the two projects are expected to take the equivalent of 10,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. For comparison, California’s carbon footprint from dairy farms (or carbon toot-print if you prefer) is about 6 million metric tons per year. SMUD has about 200 people signed up to pay so far, and that’s without very much promotion.

All in all, the projects are expected to cancel out the global-warming burden of a mere 600 customers—although more customers than that will probably sign up, choosing to offset only part of their emissions.

But SMUD is going to release a request for proposals for new local carbon offset projects sometime this month.

In doing so, SMUD is joining a number of private companies in the carbon-trading game. One, the San Francisco-based TerraPass, became known as the offset company of choice for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who paid the company a fee to make up for his constant air travel.

But carbon-offset programs have mixed reputations. In some cases, they have been criticized for funding projects that would happen anyway, or funding projects in far-flung parts of the world where it’s hard to gauge their effectiveness.

Crawford said that the idea of “additionality” was key for SMUD. “That’s really important. It had to be something that wouldn’t have happened without your dollars.”

SN&R asked local environmentalist and bullshit detector, Bill Magavern, who works for the Sierra Club California, to give us his assessment.

“This looks to me like it’s legitimate. SMUD is a local institution, a small ‘d’ democratic organization. I’d trust them before I’d trust some start up.”

But Magavern hopes customers won’t think that writing out a check gets them off the hook.

“This sort of buying indulgences to wash away all your sins of emission—I’m not sure about that,” he said. “We can’t think we’ll go on driving as many Hummers as we want and that we can just pay some dairy farmer to offset our emissions for us.”

Crawford agrees, though she said many people who have signed up for Our Green Community are the same people who are trying to find other ways to reduce their global warming impact: switching out their light bulbs, biking, eating local, etc.

“That’s one of the major criticisms of carbon offsets. If everybody decided to buy their way out of the problem, we wouldn’t get anywhere,” Crawford explained.