States Embracing Use of 'Green Power'


Demand for "green power" -- electricity generated by renewable energy sources such as wind and water -- is slowly rising. The movement owes its momentum to state policies. Texas, for example, recently passed an electric utility deregulation law stipulating that a certain percentage of Lone Star electricity must be made with green power.

Green power is still a tiny factor in the $208 billion U.S. electric industry, accounting for less than one percent of electricity generation, according to experts. Fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas are the overwhelming power sources of choice, with nuclear plants chipping in about 20 percent.

But the picture is gradually getting greener, spurred by states worried about the impacts that fossil fuels and radioactive waste from nuclear plants have on the environment.

"I think Texas is a place that you should really look at," says Adam Serchuk, a researcher with the Washington, D.C.-based Renewable Energy Policy Project. "They've just passed an (electric utility) restructuring bill with some interesting features aimed at promoting renewable energy."

A Texas law passed this year calls for the state to add 2,880 megawatts of renewable energy by 2009, which would be about 3 percent of Texas's electrical output.

The use of green power is already flourishing in California and Pennsylvania, states where deregulation has given consumers a choice of doing business with green-power companies.

Pennsylvania consumers have shown so much interest that Serchuk calls Philadelphia "the capital of green power development in this country."

As states have implemented electric utility deregulation, they've "offered customers the option of buying renewable product," says Gary Foster, a spokesman for Enron Inc., a Houston-based, $38-billion energy company. "In California, there have been significant numbers of individuals who have chosen to pay a small premium for renewable energy."

It isn't just residential consumers opting for green power. Santa Monica became the first city to switch all its municipal facilities to green power, and several companies and institutions -- including Toyota Motor Sales USA -- have joined the movement, too.

In some cases, states are leaning toward green power solely due to environmental concerns.

In 1994, Minnesota passed a law requiring the state's largest utility to provide 425 megawatts of wind capacity by 2002, in return for being granted the right to store radioactive waste from its nuclear reactors inside Minnesota, AWEA says.

Iowa's move to put 240 megawatts of wind capacity online stems from a 1983 law that requires Iowa utilities to generate at least 2 percent of their electricity by using green power.

Windmill farms in Minnesota and Iowa were built by Enron Wind Corp., an Enron subsidiary.

The primary renewable energy sources used to generate electricity are:

  • Solar panels that collect solar radiation.
  • Wind vanes that turn turbines to produce power.
  • Geothermal, which harnesses the power of steam beneath the earth's surface.
  • Biomass, a fancy title for burning wood, agricultural wastes or methane gas from landfills.
  • High-impact hydro. Environmentalists frown on this, because it harms fish and river ecosystems.
  • Low-impact hydro, a term for `fish-friendly' power systems that have minimal impact on aquatic habitats and on fish.

According to a report produced by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, nearly one-quarter of all electricity consumers will be able to purchase green power by the end of 1999.

Most will probably pass, though, because green power costs 5 percent to 10 percent more than electricity generated by conventional methods. Enron's Gary Foster says advances in technology will probably bring about a price decrease.

Until then, how do you know whether the electrons entering your home or business were generated at a coal-fired plant? Delaware, which passed a deregulation law this year, approaches that problem by requiring all electrical suppliers to disclose their product-fuel mix to customers on a quarterly basis.

The U.S. wind industry closed out its best fiscal year ever in June, having installed more than $1 billion worth of new equipment with a generating capacity of 1,073 megawatts, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

That's enough electricity to serve the needs of roughly 286,000 homes.

"More than half of the new projects built this year were developed in Iowa and Minnesota, where state laws . . . required that modest amounts of new generating capacity be based on renewable resources," says AWEA executive director Randall Swisher. "That really shows the importance of strong, far-sighted government policies in getting clean energy off the ground," adds Swisher, whose organization is based in Washington, D.C.

Consumers curious if their state has a green power producer can find out through


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