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Healthier Outlets

"We're not just an energy company that's racing to the bottom with the cheapest dirty energy."

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In the 30 months since deregulation made it possible to choose where your electricity comes from, a lot in the market has changed. But switching suppliers remains fairly easy, and if you want to clean up your power supply, there are more options than ever for supporting renewable energy.

Deregulation lets you pick not only who makes your electricity, but how it's made. You can either stick with your default utility — for most people around here, that's Duquesne Light — or select an alternate supplier. (Distribution and transmission duties, and billing, remain with your default utility.)

Two years ago, there were seven non-Duquesne options. Today, the state Public Utility Commission's www.papowerswitch.com site lists 34 alternate suppliers for Duquesne customers. But if you want your electricity use to be kinder to the planet, the field is much narrower. 

That's because most of those 35 suppliers still get most of their electricity by burning coal or natural gas. (Nuclear energy contributes about an additional one-third of Pennsylvania's electricity.) Coal remains the single biggest source of electricity here, but mining and burning it dirties the land, air and water (not forgetting our lungs). And globally, coal combustion contributes 40 percent of emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas implicated in climate change. Burning natural gas also contributes to climate change, though less heavily.

The greenest option is to use less electricity to begin with — which saves you money, too. Next best are renewables like wind and solar. Assuming you can't go off the grid entirely, advocates for renewables recommend suppliers that offer 100 percent renewable energy from regional sources. "The more renewable energy is on the grid, the less we have to rely on coal," says Courtney Lane, a senior policy analyst with nonprofit group Penn Future.

The "regional" part matters because if those windmills or solar farms are in Pennsylvania, says Lane, "[y]ou're assured that the electricity you're supporting is actually being pumped into [our] electrical grid" rather than simply being generated in some other region on your behalf. As with buying locally grown vegetables, it strengthens the local economy — and in a way that doesn't require fracking for gas, blowing up mountains for their coal, or hastening climate change.

At www.pennfuture.org, Penn Future denotes how suppliers generate their electricity. Half a dozen suppliers offer all-regional, all-renewable plans here — almost all from wind power, which boomed in Pennsylvania last year. One newcomer to the market, Washington, D.C.-based Ethical Electric, even donates a portion of its gross revenues to worthy groups like the League of Conservation Voters.

But these days, renewable plans have a tougher sell than before. Two years ago, Duquesne Light's price per kilowatt-hour was among the highest in the market. And for a time, local nonprofit Citizen Power advertised its all-wind plan (in partnership with supplier TriEagle Energy) as the cheapest.

However, the natural-gas glut has lowered prices for all suppliers of conventional electricity. And following its recent steep rate-drop, Duquesne Light is now among the cheaper suppliers of electrons. Meanwhile, market fluctuations have raised the price of wind. All-wind plans by Citizen Power and Green Mountain Energy, for instance, now cost about $13 more per average monthly bill than does the very cheapest conventional supplier. (Though that differential shrinks, of course, the less electricity you use). 

Prices rise and fall for fossil fuels and renewables alike. (You should also note whether a given plan has fixed or variable rates, or cancellation fees.) But absent serious government efforts to rein in climate change — by taxing carbon, say, or ending subsidies for fossil fuels — many conscientious consumers will act regardless of price. "We're really connecting with consumers around our values," says Richard Graves, of Ethical Electric. "We're not just an energy company that's racing to the bottom with the cheapest dirty energy."

Finally, beware of "100 percent green" electricity plans that include "Tier II" energy sources like waste coal and large-scale hydropower, which are also bad news for the environment. Stick with the cleanest stuff you can. Says Penn Future's Lane, "It's really wind and solar that will make the difference."

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