How much more would you pay for electricity that comes from renewable sources such as wind, solar and hydropower and reduces the amount of greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere?
For almost a decade, Massachusetts electric utilities have offered programs like National Grid’s GreenUp, which let customers choose clean energy sources for their power supply, for a premium. But even after including inserts in bills, sending online newsletters, hosting booths at events and posting on Facebook to promote the options, there are few takers.
Only about 6,000 of National Grid’s 1.2 million Massachusetts customers, or less than half of one percent, have enrolled in GreenUp, according to spokeswoman Deborah Drew.
GreenUp offers supplier options that purchase energy from wind farms, solar generators, hydroelectric and biomass sources. The extra cost for getting all your electricity from renewable sources range from 2.4 cents to 3.8 cents per kilowatt hour, or roughly $12 to $19 a month for an average household that uses 500 kilowatt hours. Customers can also select a portion of their energy to be renewable.
This price difference, with currently cheaper fossil fuel, is a large hurdle to overcome.
The benefits of using renewable energy sources instead of burning fossil fuels like coal include cleaner air and water, and producing fewer heat-trapping gases that contribute to climate change. The premium customers pay for renewable electricity sources are actually renewable energy credits that support the development of clean energy so that it will eventually be more available and less expensive for everyone.
The problem, according to clean energy advocates like Joel J. Fontane Jr., Worcester’s director of planning and regulatory services, who chairs the Worcester Energy Task Force and heads up sustainability initiatives for the city, is it’s hard to sell a more expensive version of a product – electricity – that looks the same from the user’s perspective. The lights work or they don’t, no matter where the electricity comes from.
“You’re buying an amorphous thing that’s a social good,” Mr. Fontane said.
Unlike rooftop solar panels that are visibly connected to the energy a house uses, Mr. Fontane said, “Part of the challenge is to try to get the customers to understand what they’re buying. You’re buying a concept.”
Mr. Fontane said that the city’s Worcester Energy program supports National Grid’s GreenUp through information about what people can do to “go green” and a link on its www.worcesterenergy.org website, but National Grid is responsible for marketing and administering the program.
The additional cost of GreenUp options, Mr. Fontane added, is not insignificant to many people, especially those who are already reeling from home heating-oil prices.
“Those who signed up for it are most interested in being green,” he said.
Mr. Fontane said selecting renewable electricity differed from buying a Toyota Prius, a hybrid car with superior gas mileage, because consumers save money on gas for the Prius. Also, he said, “When you buy a Prius, it’s a symbol you’re green. How do you know outwardly what energy you purchased?”
Promoting green energy options on the website will be part of a more holistic campaign by Worcester Energy about what people can do for the environment. Mr. Fontane said that with the savings people will get from energy-efficiency home improvements, which are also eligible for grants from the city program, he’d suggest they might be willing to spend a portion of that on purchasing renewable energy.
The selection of green energy suppliers National Grid offers are chosen by the state Department of Public Utilities, which approves the suppliers’ application to sell renewable energy certificates.
Unitil, a New Hampshire-based utility which serves Fitchburg, Ashby, Lunenburg and Townsend in Central Massachusetts, is running a pilot program in New Hampshire called Green Neighbor, but it’s not available in Massachusetts. Spokesman Alec O’Meara said that based on the current level of interest, the company doesn’t plan to expand the program.
“Essentially you’re volunteering to pay extra for something you’re already getting.”
Mr. Fontane said he suspected purchasing green energy might be gaining more traction at the corporate level than among homeowners. “People are starting to tie being green and more sustainable with their branding,” he said. “Now how do you get that to happen in a household?”
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