Seattle City Light Wants You to "Green Up" by Paying Extra

Is this ecologically sound or a waste of good intentions?

You already drink shade-grown coffee, drive a Prius, and shop strictly organic at PCC. So naturally you're the best kind of customer—indeed a captive customer—for the ad blitz Seattle City Light has recently devised for its two-year-old "Green Up" program. Your latest billing envelopes have encouraged you to Green Up by adding a voluntary premium of as much as $12 to your monthly bill. For what purpose? To buy an amount of wind power equal to a percentage of your household's usage of cheap hydropower.

"Participating in the Green Up program demonstrates your preference and support for clean energy and a healthy environment in the Northwest," says the city's Web site. "It helps promote economic development in rural parts of the region, improves our energy security, and reduces pollution."

Really?

Hydropower, which generates 90 percent of Seattle's electricity, is generally considered to be one of the cleanest energy sources there is. The main environmental downside is it requires damming rivers, which kills off the fish. But City Light spokesperson Scott Thomsen admits we won't be removing any dams as a result of Green Up energy savings. As before, any surplus energy will be sold to the air-conditioned markets of California and the Southwest, not returned to the salmon.

So what's the environmental benefit to Green Up? Thomsen says it's "a comparison of obtaining the additional energy from, say, a wind farm versus going out on the market to purchase energy that could have come from a gas- or coal-fired power plant."

As for energy security: Which fickle acts of Mother Nature would you prefer to be most subject to—wind or our annual rains and snowpack? According to Thomsen, "Adding wind into our mix diversifies our fuel sources—decreasing risk that all sources will be up or down [in supply and price] at any one time." Noting our dams' reliance on snowmelt, he adds, "hydroelectric energy is the most susceptible to global warming and climate change." So wind is a hedge.

Does Green Up really aid rural development? The wind farm from which Seattle City Light is purchasing power via the Green Up program is owned by a giant Florida-based utility called FPL Group. In 2005, City Light paid $18 million to this Fortune 500 corporation, buying wind energy at a rate roughly double what hydroelectric costs to generate. The wind farm is the largest in the country yet employs fewer than two dozen people (per FPL's own testimony before Congress). It's located in the largely empty countryside west of Walla Walla and spans the border into Oregon. The land beneath the windmills, whose rotors reach almost 75 feet above ground, is still used for wheat farming and cattle grazing.

City Light's Thomsen says 5,394 households—about 1.5 percent of the city's residential accounts—have signed up for Green Up. Over 40 high-profile local businesses are also participating, including Pagliacci, Elliott Bay Brewing, and of course, PCC, which has bought Green Up power to offset 21 percent of the electricity usage by its eight stores.

The Seattle City Council approved the Green Up plan back in 2005, recognizing that the state was about to mandate that utilities offer alternative energy sources to their customers. Marketing the program—hence those inserts in your bill—was also a state requirement, but Green Up was still to be entirely voluntary for us customers, like taking yoga class on Sunday morning, or cutting out sweets. (Though, ironically, the city recently offered a Dagoba organic chocolate bar to customers who agreed to sign up. Sorry, the promo ended last week.)

However, City Light has since become subject to another state mandate, one that Green Up is only making it tougher to meet. Under Initiative 937, which passed last fall, large utilities are required to gradually increase their overall fuel mix to 15 percent"renewable" by 2020. And the initiative backers, in a controversial move, specifically said that hydropower does not qualify as renewable.

This 15 percent has to come from either direct purchases of alternative energy or the purchase of what's called "green tags"—a kind of certificate of virtue for kilowatts. The problem is, the green tag energy that the city sells to customers through the Green Up program can't also be used to meet the requirements of I-937.

"The [Green Up] customer now owns [those tags] as an individual," says Thomsen. "City Light no longer has any claims to them, so we can't count them toward our 937 goals." In other words, success on one front means a loss on the other.

"The two concepts...do not work hand in hand," Thomsen admits. "That's something the state may need to look at."

Meantime, I-937's architects have little regard for Green Up. "Those [measures] are very small in terms of new green power that they incentivize," says Sara Patton of the NW Energy Coalition. By contrast, I-937 works on a much bigger scale, spreading the cost of green across the entire customer base. "It's not just the people who say, 'Yes, I'll pay more on my bill.'"

Of 22 states that have passed initiatives or legislation comparable to I-937, virtually all count hydro as a renewable, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. But Patton and her allies deem most hydropower to be an old, fixed resource. "The point of the initiative was to invest in new renewables," she says.

That investment may yet have a long way to go. The wind-farm industry still depends on federal tax credits to be competitive per watt. Even then, the American Wind Energy Association recently warned, plant and materials costs are steadily rising.

All of which makes Green Up something of an unwanted stepchild. "There's no money being made by City Light as a result" of customers opting for Green Up, Thomsen says; the proceeds are invested in pilot programs for green energy. "You demonstrate the market for it. It becomes financially viable at a certain point." He cites modest future programs like micro hydro, micro wind, and something to do with cow manure.

Try installing one of those operations in Ravenna and see how the neighbors react.

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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