by Miranda Hitchcock
Electricity is everywhere. We use it to watch TV and keep our food cold, and to charge our cell phones and laptops. Electricity keeps our traffic lights working and powers our hospitals. Never do all of these uses become more apparent than when the electricity suddenly disappears. For many Maryland residents, this is what happened for days last month when a series of storms blew through the area. Pepco customers, in particular, were unhappy with the reliability of their electric transmission and even held public hearings to voice their concerns.
These reliability problems are not new, and they are certainly not specific to Pepco. Unfortunately, much of our nation’s electric grid is outdated, built upon infrastructure that has begun to falter under our ever-growing population and energy needs. The Obama administration has pledged billions of dollars to modernize the grid, but like all enormous systems, this takes time.
When I first saw the news about the Pepco hearings, I thought, “This is a perfect time to get people thinking about their energy options- like our Supplier, Electric Advisors.” So I posted a tweet, “MD is tired of Pepco’s unreliability. http://dlvr.it/4TPwW (from @BethesdaNews) It’s time to get clean wind energy from Electric Advisors!” 10:56PM, August 30th. At the time, I did not realize how confusing this might be- until I got a concerned message from a reader. She said, “I’m concerned that this tweet could mislead someone about how purchasing ‘green power’ actually works;” and she was absolutely right! Choosing to invest in clean, mid-Atlantic wind energy with Electric Advisors does NOT mean leaving Pepco’s distribution system.
The point that I was hoping to make (and it’s hard in 140 characters!) is that our electric infrastructure is out of date, and that even if you take freak storms out of the mix, our current infrastructure has been degrading over time significantly. This is also true for the behemoth coal plants that make most of our energy. Switching to Electric Advisors or another clean option sends a message to the industry that people are interested in new, more efficient and clean sources of energy- which will hopefully lead to a more significant switch from coal to renewables and a MUCH needed overhaul of our energy infrastructure. So I didn’t intend to say “move from Pepco to wind” but rather, “aren’t you sick of the way things are now? Change what you CAN now, and push the industry to make moves.”
But our reader was absolutely right that this could be confusing, particularly when most of us aren’t quite sure of how purchasing clean energy really works. Because our organization aims to provide education as well as discounts, I thought this would be a perfect time to talk about Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) and how they work with our system! To get an expert point of view, I emailed Eric Coffman at the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, who provided a link for an excellent description of the system.
The basic idea: Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) represent a certain amount of energy being produced from clean, renewable sources like wind. Most utility companies are now offering a choice to their consumers about where their energy should come from, using these RECs as a trading method. Someone using Pepco, for example, can choose from a list of clean energy brokers who connect you to the actual suppliers or generators. (The Co-op’s choice is Electric Advisors!) You don’t actually purchase the energy itself from Pepco, but rather from one of these competitive energy suppliers. Pepco still distributes the energy to you, but you pay your chosen company (a broker, who pays the supplier) for electricity. It is important to note that the electricity from many sources (the one you chose, the one your neighbors chose, and the ones Pepco has as a default) gets combined and sent down the wires. So even if you sign up for 100% wind energy, the electricity entering your home is still a mix. You’ve simply purchased a “clean energy equivalent” to your share of consumption. So don’t worry that if the wind stops blowing, you won’t get power! You will still get service from the grid. This also applies if Pepco’s service goes out- your power will go out when everyone else’s does, even if you’ve bought wind. This is a very simplified description that may not fully explain the system, so if you have questions or comments, please shoot us an email or contact the environmental/energy authority in your area.
In Pepco’s words:
“The restructuring of the electric utility industry allows you to select the electricity supplier that best fits your needs. If you don’t choose a supplier, Pepco buys electricity for you and charges you according to rates approved by your state Public Service Commission. This is called “Standard Offer Service” (SOS), and appears under “Supply Charges” in the Electric Charges portion of your bill. Customer bills are broken down to indicate charges for supply , the actual electricity, and delivery, the process of getting that electricity to end users. Pepco continues to deliver the electricity to all customers, no matter who they choose as their supplier. For many years, Pepco was the sole electricity supplier in suburban Maryland and Washington, D.C. We generated electricity and delivered it to you at rates set by regulatory commissions. In 2000, Pepco’s electricity market changed. We no longer generate our own electric power, and competing electricity suppliers are allowed to market their electric supply to Maryland customers.”
We chose Electric Advisors as our Supplier of clean energy for several reasons. First, they have a commitment to this community and a drive to support it. Second, they are truly local. While many clean energy sources will gladly sell you wind, much of it comes from Texas and other areas halfway across the country. Electric Advisors, on the other hand, supplies wind energy from right here in the mid-Atlantic region.
For more information, you can also check out cleanpowermarkets.com or other green energy websites. For more detailed information, go to the EPA Green Power Partnership website and download the Renewable Energy Certificates PDF. As always, please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions!
Miranda Hitchcock is the Implementation Manager at the Maryland Energy & Sustainability Co-op.