There are major changes underway in the energy sector, and coal-dependent utilities are getting decidedly nervous. We may be on the cusp of a disruptive paradigm shift toward smarter, more distributed and cleaner energy. But how do we make it happen?

Installing solar panels or wind turbines is, of course, one way to accelerate the shift — but that option isn't open to all of us. Many of us rent, for example. Even if you do own a house, on-site renewables aren't always viable. Despite a dramatic fall in the cost of solar, it still requires a pretty hefty investment (assuming that the new breed of zero-upfront solar companies are not yet servicing your community). For others, some houses just don't make a good site for renewables. 

Never fear, there are still plenty of ways to get in on the clean energy revolution. Here are just a few of them. 

Use less energy

From installing LED bulbs to adjusting the thermostat, we already know that energy conservation can both save you money and slash carbon emissions. What's less talked about, however, is that it also makes clean energy more viable. One of the biggest challenges we face in ramping up renewables is the problem of "intermittency," meaning that solar and wind can be somewhat unpredictable. That's not an insurmountable problem — there are many ways to make renewables more reliable — but reducing the overall demand for energy would be a huge help in making the supply side of the equation less daunting.

Buy green power

If you live in a state or country with deregulated electricity markets, you may have the choice of buying electricity from a 100 percent green energy company like Clean Currents. That means you won't just be buying out of coal and other fossil fuels, but you'll also be helping to build a more powerful voice for the alternatives. To see how dramatically this can change the landscape, look at the story of Ecotricity's Dale Vince in the U.K., who went from living "off-grid" in a bus to building a gigantic wind energy empire, and publicly taking on the traditional "Big Six" utilities in the U.K. for their lack of progress. If you don't have the luxury of consumer choice in your electricity market, you may still be able to invest in green energy programs through your utility. The U.S. Department of Energy has a list of green energy markets by state

Support businesses that use green power

Every time you drink a beer from New Belgium Brewery, you can also raise a glass to green energy. The company is proudly wind-powered and employee-owned, and it seems to be expanding fast with a new brewery opening in Asheville, N.C. From Apple's gigantic solar farm through IKEA's huge investments in renewable energy, an increasing number of businesses are buying some or all of their power from clean energy sources.

It's not just the big guys either. My own small branding agency purchases green energy credits to cover our consumption, as do many of our clients. And in my neck of the woods I see solar panels appearing on everything from a car repair shop to a trade show exhibit manufacturer. Where you have the choice, choose to use businesses that put their weight behind renewable energy — and let them know why you are doing so. 

Donate to clean energy campaigns and charities

From the collaboration- and research-based approach of the Rocky Mountain Institute to the campaigns of Greenpeace, there's no shortage of causes you can donate to that are either developing alternatives to fossil fuels or campaigning for a change in the system. And if you are motivated by international poverty alleviation work, you can still support clean energy — simply by donating to groups like the Solar Electric Light Fund or Solar Aid to bring reliable energy to communities that need it. 

Vote, Vote, Vote

Whether it's the fight over the future of net metering in Arizona, or national controversies like Keystone XL or Department of Energy loan guarantees for renewables, the fight both for and against clean energy is going on at the community, state, national and even international levels. Participating in the democratic process is a crucial strategy for keeping progress on track. Choose candidates who value clean energy innovation and environmental protection, and make sure they know that these issues matter to you. 

Related posts on Treehugger: How renewables can keep the lights on when the sun doesn't shine