One of the things I learned from My Ecological Footprint effort is that making meaningful changes in one's behavior isn't easy. That's why I was so skeptical and eventually pleasantly surprised when I came across the chance to switch our house's electricity generation over to 100% wind power.
For this to make sense, you have to know a little bit about where our electricity comes from. I used my son Conner's crayons to draw up this highly scientific illustration of how the system works.
Figure 1. Where Electricity Comes From
In most places the electric company purchases their electricity from producers who make the electricity using all different methods. Some producers burn coal, some burn garbage, some use hydro (water) power and some even use the wind to make electricity. These producers sell the electricity to the electric company who put it all in a big metaphorical bucket. The electric company then run wires from their bucket to your house.
When your kid flips a light-switch in our house, electricity flows out of the electric company's bucket over the wires and through your lamps creating light. You then spend the rest of your life chasing your kids around the house telling them to turn off the lights and stop wasting electricity.
The ProblemMost of the electricity used by MA electric companies comes from burning coal, which is very cheap since the US sits on top of massive deposits of coal. Unfortunately burning coal is:
The Solution is a BreezeUnfortunate puns aside, a great alternative to burning coal is to harness the wind to produce electricity. This is becoming popular on farm land where there's lots of space, and the wind turbines can co-exist on the same land as the crops. Maple Ridge Wind Farm in New York is one such wind electricity producer and they just happen to provide electricity to my electric company.
Perfect right? Why not move everyone to wind power immediately?
Well there's a catch. Because large scale wind power generation hasn't had time to mature like coal based production, electricity from wind costs more than electricity from coal. Electric companies, being in business to make a profit, are unlikely to choose a more expensive source of electricity to sell to us.
That's why I was so skeptical when I learned that NSTAR was offering the option to switch to 100% wind generated electricity generated by Maple Ridge Wind Farm. So I started researching how it worked, and kept digging until I found the wind turbines supplying the wind power to NSTAR. My sources are listed below and my conclusion is that there's a legitimate product and business model here.
Figure 2. Maple Ridge Wind Turbines on Bing Maps
The way it works is pretty simple. When you sign up for NSTAR or National Grid's green option, they agree to purchase whatever electricity you use from Maple Ridge Wind Farm, and in return you agree to pay the extra 1.396 cents per kWh it costs NSTAR to get electricity from wind instead of coal.
For our family, switching to 100% wind generated electricity adds between $7 and $15 a month depending on weather or not my relatives are visiting.
Debating the Particulars
Some people who were really paying attention to the crayon diagram above may have noticed that there is no guarantee that the electrons that come into my house were the ones generated by the wind farm.
That argument goes something like "But it's not worth it because you're almost definitely getting some coal based electrons from the electric company bucket!"
To that I say "Very perceptive of you, but it's totally worth it!" While Heisenberg's commitment issues keep me from determining where each electron comes from, it's safe to say that I'm getting some coal generated electrons out of their bucket. But that really isn't the point.
The point is that by choosing the 100% wind option I'm helping, in a very affordable way, to mature the wind industry and reduce my carbon and pollution footprint at the same time.
Electric companies would be in a mad rush to meet the demand... More wind producers would pop up.
As countries like China and India ramped up their electricity production they would find that because of our $7 a month investment to switch, wind technology had matured and the costs of producing wind power had bottomed out.
All of a sudden it is now cheaper for them to generate power with renewable wind than to bother blowing the tops of mountains to find coal.
Less coal would get burned and fewer greenhouse gasses would get pumped into the sky... The air would literally be sweeter to breath as the pollution from coal faded away.
That's a pretty good deal for $7 a month...
How to Switch to Wind
It was extremely easy to switch. Once I was satisfied that this was a great option for our family, I just went to the NSTAR Green sign-up website and typed in my account number and zip code and then pressed a button saying switch me to wind power.
A month later I was using 100% wind energy. How cool is that!?!
If you want to see what it would cost you to switch to wind power this spiffy gadget from NSTAR will tell you.
Figure 3. NSTAR's Green Calculator (scroll to bottom of linked page)
Seriously, a few clicks and our carbon footprint was dramatically reduced! I still follow my kids around the house telling them to turn off the lights, because fate has decree that I am destine to relive the torment I put my mother through.
Still, it's great knowing that our lights aren't contributing to climate change. My favorite part is when I turn them on I know we're helping to grow a sustainable and renewable industry.