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Change Starts at Home: Four Ways to Switch to Renewables

The elevator pitch: You want to do your part to cut emissions and start using clean energy at home, but aren’t sure where to begin or if it makes sense for you. Here are four options to explore to get started.


You heard the president announce the US would exit the Paris Agreement.

You joined hundreds of thousands of Americans all across the country in telling the White House and the world that I Am Still In, pledging to do your part to ensure the US meets its Paris commitments with or without the federal government.

So now what? How do you translate the words of the pledge into action that makes a real difference beyond changing your lightbulbs and recycling your soda cans?  Especially if – like most of us – the idea of driving a Tesla or other EV supercar is more appealing than the reality of paying for it?

If you play around with tools like CoolClimate Network’s carbon calculator, a couple things jump out. Among them, there’s the fact that, outside of transportation, one of the biggest parts of our carbon footprint is home energy use. Cut the carbon out of the picture and that footprint shrinks in a big, big way.

You might be forgiven for thinking that’s great if you own your home and are able to put solar panels on the roof. But what if you’re renting or just not in a place where roof panels are a possibility?

This is where clean energy can unfairly get a bad rap from some corners as being time-consuming and expensive to get going at home. Because the truth is, choosing clean alternatives over energy from coal, oil, and natural gas for your home is in a lot of places a whole lot easier and cheaper than you might realize. Below are four ways to switch to wind or solar at home, starting with the easiest and cheapest options. (And, just to be clear, we have no financial skin in this game and no incentive to steer you to one option or energy provider over another.)

Choice One: Your Existing Utility (No Really)

Over 600 utilities across the US already offer customers the option to choose green power from renewables like wind and solar. The programs may have different names like Windsource (Xcel in Colorado, Minnesota, and Texas) or Green Source (Portland General Electric in Oregon), but they basically work the same way: the utility either generates the power with clean sources or buys renewable energy certificates (more on these below) from other clean energy providers .

Frequently, there’s an additional charge for choosing clean energy in the range of 1 cent to 1.5 cents/KWh, which works out to be roughly $8—10/month for the average home, according to Puget Sound Energy. Not nothing, to be sure, but also an affordable option for a lot of families and a practical one for renters. Plus, in many cases, making the switch is just a matter of a few clicks or a few minutes on the phone.

Next step: Check your utility’s website or pick up the phone.

Choice Two: Renewable Energy Certificates

Ready to make the switch but your utility doesn’t offer a green power option? Going with a renewable energy certificate (REC) provider may be the path for you.

To understand how RECs work, we have to step back and look at the grid as a whole. All the electricity produced from any source in the US flows into the transmission lines that make up the grid. When we turn on the lights or plug in a computer, we draw electricity from the grid that could have been generated from a number of sources (once energy has been generated and supplied to the grid, there’s no way to track it).

What we can track is how much energy renewable providers generate and supply to the grid. For each megawatt hour (MW/h) of electricity a solar or wind facility puts into the grid, it gets a unique REC, signaling ownership of that unit of clean power. Third-party providers then buy these RECs or utilities buy them directly. Either way, they're essentially buying the clean energy in the grid – even though they didn't generate it themselves.

In many markets, customers can select a certified third-party provider to work with their utility and buy RECs equivalent to their energy use, in effect buying clean energy from a provider that may be thousands of miles away. The beauty of RECs is that they create a national market for clean energy, enabling a renter in Maine, for example, to essentially buy wind power from New York or solar power from North Carolina.

Green-e offers industry-recognized certification of RECs, guaranteeing that the companies you buy RECs from, did in fact see that clean energy equivalent to the certificate was generated and delivered to the grid. And in many cases, getting signed up takes only a couple minutes.

Next step: Visit Green-e to find a certified REC provider that services your market.

Choice Three: Community Solar

Want to get into the solar revolution – remember, enough solar strikes the earth every hour and a half to power the planet for a year – but don’t own your roof? Check out local community solar projects.

There are many variations on the approach, but the general outline is that a company like a utility or a community come together to purchase or develop a solar farm in a site other than where they live. Different options exist beyond that, with some community solar projects offering the chance to purchase or finance a set of panels roughly equivalent to a user’s needs.

Others will let people subscribe to a local project and by RECs or other means, effectively buy their electricity from the project without buying the panels that produce it. Not surprisingly, these projects are frequently limited in the number of subscribers they can serve as demand can quickly outstrip supply. But with community solar projects in 25 states, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association, there may be a project close to and right for you.

Next steps: Check out Energy Sage’s directory of US community solar projects.

Choice Four: Rooftop Solar

Photovoltaic (PV) cells on rooftops are what most people think of when they think of solar. The cost of solar panels has been in a free fall for a while, leading to a 65 percent drop in solar prices in the last five years alone. Federal and state incentives can make the choice more affordable, but even still this is a significant investment for many.

Home or business owners looking to put solar on their roofs can either purchase their panels outright (with financing options available in most places) or lease them from a provider. Each path comes with its own considerations and benefits and Energy Sage does a good job of walking through them for both approaches. In most markets, solar users receive credit from their utility for the energy they feed into the grid that goes beyond their immediate use – a practice known as “net metering” (though, sadly, fossil fuel interests have been fighting the practice at the state and local level around the country). Improving home battery technology can also give solar homes and businesses a way to store the energy they generate for night and off-hour use.

Next steps: Research solar installers in your home market. Consumer Affairs has a list of well-reviewed companies as a place to start, but this is just one resource (we have no recommendation for one installer over others).

The Bottom Line

From the outside, choosing clean energy for your home can seem intimidating, but spend five minutes online and you’ll see that chances are, there’s a path that’s right for you.

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