Few of us spend much time thinking about where we buy our electricity. We move into a new apartment or house, sign up for whatever electricity provider is available, and leave it at that. The bill comes each month, and we pay it each month (or so) in perpetuity.
This was even true for me, who can let 10 minutes pass studying yogurt labels at the supermarket. I used to let any old electrons power my home without a second thought, but not anymore.
I’m being partially facetious: Unless you generate your own electricity, you can’t actually dictate the source of the power running through your wires. But what you can do in many states is dictate from where your utility purchases your share of electricity—an easy way to support renewable energy while changing absolutely nothing about your lifestyle.
How It Works
Most of us receive our electricity from the grid, which combines and distributes power generated by many sources—hydropower, wind, solar, coal, natural gas, etc. The grid is maintained by one or more utility companies, which purchase power from generators or other suppliers; by default, American consumers purchase power from their utility company.
But in 18 states and Washington, D.C., renters and homeowners can opt out of a utility’s default electricity mix and direct them to purchase their share of power from other suppliers, including renewable ones. The electricity is run into the same old grid through the same old wires; a customer who opts in to an alternative supplier receives the same electric bill and pays it to the same utility. The only difference is that the utility purchases that customer’s share of the power from the source they prefer.
So if you live in one of those 18 states or D.C., you don’t have to wait for your utility to switch to renewables. Instead, you can demand the change yourself and, in doing so, help support a market for wind and solar energy in the U.S.
The downside is that the process of switching to a new supplier isn’t always clear. For one, each state runs its own website to present you with options, and the user experience can vary widely. Some websites present all the information you need to make a decision—including the cost of electricity from different providers, renewable energy options, and contract length—while others seem designed to make the process more difficult than it should be.
The other frustration is that some of the alternative suppliers are, to be frank, scams that intentionally mislead consumers. You can read horror stories online of customers who signed lengthy contracts promising cheaper electricity, only to have prices increase over time. Others present themselves as sustainable "green" suppliers but don't really help with reducing carbon emissions.
This means is that you need to do your due diligence before you switch to make sure the alternative supplier is honest. Here are some steps and tips to get you on your way.
Step 1: Examine Your Bill
Even if you get your electricity bill in the mail every month, you probably haven’t studied it much. Take this opportunity to get to know it. Typically, around one-third of your monthly cost goes toward power distribution, and the other two-thirds go toward power generation.
The cost of power generation is what would change if you do switch to an alternate supplier. The cost is measured by the kilowatt-hour of energy; this tends to range between 7 and 12 cents per kilowatt-hour. And it comes in two flavors: variable and fixed. A variable rate changes depending on electricity demand on the grid: for example, when air conditioners are blaring in the summer, electricity will cost a little more. A fixed rate stays consistent no matter the demand, but over time tends to cost slightly more. This decision is entirely your preference—whether you prefer consistency or can handle pricing spikes during certain seasons.
Whatever price is on your bill is the price to which you’ll compare the alternative options. Generally, opting in to renewable energy costs a couple cents more per kilowatt-hour. Consider it an investment in a future powered by renewables.
Step 2: Generate an Initial List
Next is the hardest step: Studying the sometimes-long list of alternative providers and identifying which are good fits for you. Use your state’s official website to generate an initial list, and then supplement it with results from an online search for energy suppliers or co-ops in your state or region.
Step 3: Narrow Your Choices
Now it’s time to narrow down that list. Not all alternative suppliers offer renewable energy, so that’s an easy first step in the process of elimination. Next, select only those providers that offer your preference for a variable or fixed electricity rate. You’ll also want to screen by contract terms. If you’re signing up for a fixed rate, you’ll likely need to sign a contract and, if possible, look for one that has a low or nonexistent termination fee. If you sign up for a variable rate, try to avoid a lengthy contract; this is how some scams are able to increase the rate and trap consumers.
Step 4: Weed Out Scams
Once you’ve got your list to a manageable size, visit the remaining suppliers’ websites. One easy trick to weed out scammy providers is to request a rate quote on their website. A company that demands your phone number or email address before providing a quote is one to avoid; any supplier should be able to show you your options based on zip code alone, without harvesting your personal information. Additionally, look for robust customer service sections and read some reviews online.
Step 5: Double-Check Sourcing
As you visit the websites, seek information about from where the renewable energy is sourced. The point of this whole effort is to support the production of renewable energy, so be sure the supplier confirms that that is indeed what it does. The ideal situation is purchasing renewable energy produced locally. But this isn’t possible in all states; not all have a renewables industry. A second-best option is a supplier that purchases energy from wind or solar farms in other states.
You want to avoid suppliers that purchase unspecified “carbon offsets” for energy you purchase from them. There are better ways to offset your emissions if you want to do that (more on that below).
Step 6: Get In the (Green) Game
Eventually, when you find a supplier or co-op that seems trustworthy, it’s time to sign up. I don’t recommend rushing into the decision; maybe sit on it a week, do a little more research, and make sure you’re comfortable with the supplier. But then go ahead and sign up through their website or over the phone.
After that, check your bill for the next few months to make sure your rates seem reasonable. After that, you should be all set. Your bill will come from the same utility, and if you have auto-pay, it will continue to be paid automatically. If you have an outage or other issues with your power, you still work with your local utility, not the supplier.
The only difference is that when you turn on the lights, you’ll know that you’re supporting renewable energy instead of using passé fossil fuels.
What If There Aren't Any Good Options In My State?
Unfortunately, in most states, energy choice is not available. If that's the case for you, there are a few options. First, you can (and should) contact your Public Utility Commission (PUC) and encourage them to allow you to choose your energy supplier. Each state has a PUC that oversees utilities; the commissioners, who are elected in some states and appointed in others, dictate whether energy choice is an option.
This might be an effort you bring to elected officials, or approach in a more roundabout way, e.g. through your Governor’s office. There are good educational materials on the website of the American Coalition of Competitive Energy Suppliers.
Another option is to continue to pay your normal bill and offset your energy use by purchasing carbon credits that fund renewable energy projects around the world. Click here to learn more.