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Commentary

My Renewable Electrons

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Claudio Schwarz
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Flickr Creative Commons

Nowadays it’s possible to choose where you get your electricity from by signing up for options including renewable energy.  Commentator and UD Professor Bob Brecha asks how we know if our electricity is really green.

After hearing one of my WYSO essays, a listener contacted me to ask what I thought about switching her electricity service to a “green” option, which is offered by various providers, such as DP&L.  But this question interests me because it tends to generate a lot of controversy.

The basic idea is this – your electricity provider is likely not the same as the company that actually generates the electricity.  That’s part of what deregulation of the energy markets has done for us in Ohio. Natural gas works the same way if you use that. You don’t have much choice about who owns the grid or the wires that move electricity from one place to another.  But you can choose from whom you buy that electricity. What, exactly, does that mean?

A good starting place is the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, or PUCO, and its website called Apples-to-Apples.  Once you’ve landed there you can find your provider, like DP&L, Duke or AEP.  Then the fun starts – you might find 60 or 70 different offers to choose from.  Luckily, along with the price per kilowatt-hour, PUCO has added a column for each generating company that tells how much of that electricity is renewable.  You will quickly see that some “green” options cost little more, if at all, compared to standard offers.  On average, Ohio’s grid electricity is made up of 50% or more coal-generated electricity. But some of the available offers claim they supply 100% renewable electricity.

Though… here’s the catch, and where each consumer has to think a bit about how green he or she  really wants to be.  If I decide to sign up for 100% renewable electricity from company R, do I really get to use wind and solar electricity?  For example, some of the companies offering renewable electricity are located in Texas or Pennsylvania – can they guarantee that my electrons don’t get mixed up with coal-generated electrons along the transmission path?  Of course, the simple answer is “no” – there is no guarantee. So then the question is, “What am I really paying for, and is it worth it?”

Over the last few years, our electricity system has been getting cleaner, as far as CO2 emissions go. That’s due to the availability of relatively cheap natural gas, though we should think carefully about the tradeoffs we are making in this case, since most of that natural gas is from fracking.  But, that’s an essay subject for another day. However, production of electricity from wind turbines and solar panels has been growing rapidly in the U.S., and all over the world.  These renewables may be a small amount of total electricity generation, but that may not be the case in just a few years.   Since carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels are a shared problem for all of us, not just in the U.S., it seems reasonable to think that alternatives to fossil fuels will also be shared resources.  In this case, it probably makes more sense for wind power to be generated in places where there is strong and regular wind blowing, like Texas or Iowa, and for solar power to be generated in the Southwest.  Utilities that invest in projects in these places do so with the idea of maximizing efficiency, as well as profits.  We can all benefit from their decisions, because we can effectively buy into those projects, obtaining our electricity more cheaply than it might be if we insisted on putting up a wind turbine in our own backyard. And by the way, we can also do just fine with wind and solar here in Ohio.

Luckily, with time, and continued investments by citizens and utilities, the cost of renewable electricity has been decreasing dramatically. And that leads utilities to build wind parks instead of new coal-fired power plants, simply because they supply the cheapest electricity for customers.  That, in turn, is why when you use PUCO’s Apples-to-Apples site, there’s little difference in cost for you between 0% and 100% renewable electricity.

I hope that more of you contact me with your questions about sustainability, energy and climate change, or with suggestions for future radio essays.

Bob Brecha is a professor of Physics and Renewable and Clean Energy at the University of Dayton, and Research Director UD's Hanley Sustainability Institute.  Follow him on Twitter: @BobBrecha