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RISMEDIA, March 1, 2008-(MCT)-It wasn’t long ago that powering a home with renewable “green” power meant erecting a windmill in the backyard or covering the roof with solar panels.

Either option requires a big up-front investment with an uncertain payoff.

But today, a rapidly expanding market in renewable energy has put “green power” within reach of most U.S. homeowners interested in paying for environmentally friendly power. Several marketers in Maryland and nationwide buy and sell renewable energy credits, or RECs, that allow homeowners to buy green power, at least on paper.

An example of how it works: A wind farm in West Virginia produces electricity, creating RECs for each megawatt produced. A homeowner in Maryland then purchases enough RECs from a marketer to equal the amount of power they use from conventional, polluting power plants.

As a general rule, one can expect to pay a 15% to 25% premium to go totally green with their power. The trick is making sure you are dealing with a reputable supplier, and that your dollars are truly going to support new renewable energy projects.

“You’re sort of buying the renewable energy attribute, not necessarily the power itself,” said Bruce Mulliken, editor and publisher of Green Energy News, a Baltimore-based newsletter.

“One of the problems in the Mid-Atlantic is there’s not a whole lot of renewable energy out there,” Mulliken said

Signing up typically requires filling out an Internet form. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a Website where consumers can view a list of green power marketers that serve Maryland. Some industry groups offer certification programs so consumers know the green power they’re buying is being tracked from a legitimate source.

The Maryland market

The market in Maryland is driven in part by deregulation of the power industry, which opened the door for competitive energy suppliers to steal customers from traditional utilities. Much has been said about the failure of that market to develop in Maryland.

But 100% green power is one product alternative energy suppliers offer that the state’s traditional utilities typically don’t. Some marketers are carving out a “green” niche for themselves, having balked at competing head-to-head with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and others for conventional customers.

Fewer than 3% of Maryland customers buy power from alternative suppliers, and it’s unknown how many of those purchases are for green power exclusively.

Though it’s still only a fraction of total energy use, sales of clean energy in the so-called “voluntary” market have grown nearly 50% annually for the past several years, the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., reports. That includes about 700,000 households and businesses nationwide — so much that prices are rising and the industry is having a tough time keeping pace with demand.

The shortage is being driven in part by big corporations that buy up green power to bolster their environmental credentials, said Lori Bird, a senior analyst with the National Renewable Energy lab, which tracks green power data.

“There really is a need for the renewable energy sector to accelerate their deployment of it to meet all the demand on the national level,” Bird said.

On a regional basis, some marketers — such as Washington Gas Energy Services or Pepco Energy Services — are purchasing RECs from wind farms in West Virginia and Pennsylvania that equal the electricity consumed by their Maryland customers. Energy from those sources is pumped into the grid operated by PJM Interconnection, which serves Maryland, 12 other states and the District of Columbia. Maryland has no wind or industrial-scale solar production.

Companies like Washington Gas and Pepco essentially replace BGE as the customer’s energy supplier. The green power purchases show up on the customer’s utility bill as a separate line item for energy supply. The utility continues to charge the customer for delivering power over its lines.

In other cases, the RECs are purchased from sources all over the country, and the marketer either bills the customer separately or through the utility. Both methods achieve basically the same goal, but customers have to decide for themselves whether they want their dollars going only to projects closer to home.

“From a global warming perspective, it doesn’t matter if you’re supporting wind power in West Virginia or in Texas,” said Gary Skulnik, president and co-founder of Clean Currents, a Rockville upstart that sells RECs purchased from national sources.

Before joining the green movement, it’s important to know that not all green energy products are created equal. Many experts suggest buying products that are certified by an industry trade group, ensuring that your dollars are going to support only new clean energy projects. Certification also ensures that RECs are not being sold over and over again by an unscrupulous marketer.

The most widely used certifier of green power is the San Francisco-based Center for Resource Solutions, which operates the Green-e program. The organization monitors the marketing and sale of RECs, which are assigned an identifying number when issued. The identifier tells the buyer where, when and how the power was generated, and whether the REC is Green-e certified. Once a REC is sold to a customer, its number is retired so that it can’t be double-counted, said Jeff Swenerton, a spokesman for the center.

Surprised by interest

Skulnik has been surprised by the level of interest. Clean Currents, which sells green power through a partnership with Washington Gas, teamed up with community organizers in Catonsville to buy green power last year. The group hoped to attract 100 people to a meeting at a local library. More than 300 showed up.

“It’s one of my contributions to reducing my carbon footprint,” said Joan Plisko, an environmental engineer and Catonsville resident who helped organize the effort.

Plisko works for a Baltimore nonprofit that helps hospitals and other health care facilities embrace environmental practices. She’s also involved with the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network. Buying clean electricity was just an extension of her green lifestyle.

“I truly believe in the saying ‘think globally, but act locally,'” she said.

Copyright © 2008, The Baltimore Sun
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.