The ads Con Edison has placed on New York City subway cars depress and enrage me, as any commuting companion of mine can attest. Models pose as happy Con Ed customers, illustrating “green” living through slightly reduced fossil-fuel based energy use: Suck it up and make a few minor lifestyle changes, for the children, for the planet! It feels good! Buy energy-efficient appliances! Turn off your air conditioner when you leave your home! Don’t leave the refrigerator door open!
Really? These suggestions are all well and good, but they have little to do with the energy crisis and even less with actually averting environmental disaster. They’re a distraction intended to maintain a misguided link between environmental optimism and “responsible” fossil fuel consumption. Green consumerism comforts us, allows us to keep spending suicidally. But what realistic alternative do we have?
Shoshanna Grunwald knows of quite a few; the only problem is how to get the public hooked. Grunwald is the membership services associate for the Philadelphia-based Energy Cooperative Association of Pennsylvania, a 30-year-old organization that leverages group buying power to help consumers save money on their energy bills.
The Energy Cooperative offers a program called EcoChoice100, through which members can purchase electricity through renewable sources. Grunwald describes the Energy Cooperative as acting like a broker between consumers and companies and individuals producing wind, solar and low-impact hydro power. This is exciting, though she stresses that EcoChoice100 represents only a small portion of her organization’s business, and that they are not primarily a green energy company.
Grunwald is a committee member of her neighborhood’s food co-op and sees a strong connection between the renewable energy and food justice movements, particularly when it comes to valuing local sources. “I believe that sustainability has much to do with proximity. No matter what source power comes from, it's got to come from within the community,” she says.
Some of EcoChoice100’s sources are local, and Grunwald hopes to see that percentage grow significantly after 2011. That’s when the rate caps that allow PECO, the local utility, to charge below market rate come off. “At that time, their rates are probably going to jump and then people are more likely to consider us as a real alternative,” she says.
Rate caps inhibit the ability of renewable energy providers to compete with fossil fuels, leading some to speculate that the economic dynamics of the energy industry could shift dramatically toward sustainability once this obstacle is removed.
As a stop-gap, The Energy Cooperative is considering a scaled system through which members could purchase a percentage of their electricity from renewable sources, keeping costs down while still supporting renewable energy and consuming fewer fossil fuels.
“It's important that we change the economics and make renewable and green products also affordable, but really, until the rate caps come off, it's all just speculation what's going to happen,” she says.
One exciting thing that could happen is an upswing in the number of EcoChoice100 members installing solar panels in their own homes. “Anyone who produces renewable energy has the right to RECs [renewable energy credits] which can be bought and sold and traded like a commodity,” Grunwald says, “so we pay them a bit for the electricity they create and can legitimately say that 3 percent of the renewable electricity we sell comes from local solar.”
The solar program has increased since its inception in 2002 and currently enjoys more than 50 participants, “but, in all honesty, it’s been stagnant or shrinking over the past year or two.” The solar buy back program is not accepting new participants.
“I do see renewable energy as becoming more broadly available as consumers realize they have the power to make choices which really affect their consumption, and that companies will respond,” she says.
Grunwald likens renewable energy to organic food: As demand increased, products once available only at specialty stores became the norm in supermarkets across the nation. Does she worry that as renewable energy becomes marketable, big companies may sell less than environmentally friendly energy products with a “green” label, much like what has happened with organic food?
“Absolutely! We have that debate as a staff all the time. I think we all know clean coal is bulls**t, as is a lot of ‘green energy,’ which is why consumers need to be educated and diligent. ‘Green’ already has some bad connotations, and it's likely to only get worse as big business realizes that there's yet another new, ready-to-be-tapped market of young up and comers who are willing to pay for these labels. That's one reason co-ops are different, in an important way. We're member-owned and we're a nonprofit, and we operate under some pretty strict principles which are all about what's really best for our members and the community at large.”