In Maryland, switching to green power is like flipping a switch

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July 29, 2016
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The idea—use green energy—is simple. The process is a little more complex. But it’s not as hard as it might seem.

There are plenty of resources—all of them free of charge or close to it—that can guide Montgomery County residents through a switch from dirty power to clean power in their home or business. You don’t even need a degree in electrical engineering to green your electricity use.

 

Finding a green energy supplier

As renewable energy becomes cheaper and more widely available, the number of options is growing. At times, the sheer number of choices can seem confusing.

Solar panels on a home

Solar panels on a home

The good news is that there is no wrong answer, assuming all companies are reputable. Choosing green power in Maryland is largely a matter of personal preference and circumstance—two main options include:

  • Purchasing green power in a competitive marketplace from a retail energy supplier, which is added on to your monthly electricity bill.
  • Using onsite renewable energy, like installing owned or leased solar panels or a geothermal energy system.

“If your house gets a lot of sunlight and is a good candidate for solar panels, then having that is probably a good idea,” said Brian Toll, founder and president of Ecobeco. “But financing options can be very complex. Anybody can sign up for green electricity, but not as many can get solar. If you have a good home for it and you think you’ll be there for a long time, maybe solar is the way to go. If you go with retail, you don’t have to think very hard.”

How to make the switch

Although there is no single process, there are some easy steps each resident can take:

    • Research: Visit the Maryland Public Service Commission website. Here, users can search through a list of approved electricity providers based on their location. Simply click on any entry in the list to learn more about the company, including whether or how green its energy portfolio is.
    • Shop Around: Do your homework and compare rates. Shop around and make sure each company enjoys good standing among watchdogs and customers. Look for the Green-E logo, a form of independent certification that verifies clean energy companies.
    • Make the Call: After selecting a company, it is fairly easy to make the switch—typically, no one needs to physically visit your location, and billing will continue to happen in much the same way as before. Contracts typically last 12-24 months and vary in the terms they offer.
    • Read the Contract Carefully: Be aware of unfavorable contract terms, such as rates and early termination conditions. For example, “If you’re going to get a contract, do a fixed-rate contract, just like you would want to with a mortgage,” Toll advised. “The actual switch is really simple. All you need is your current utility bill. Just try not to do a variable rate because, if there’s a market shock, you don’t want to absorb that [rate increase].”

 

Solar and wind renewable energy options

When selecting a retail green energy provider, customers can select a variety of renewable energy sources to use.

Green power already in the mix

By default, the majority of Montgomery County residents receive conventional electricity through Pepco (other electricity utility companies include BGE and Potomac Edison). The exact mix of Pepco sources varies and changes fairly frequently, so it can be hard to pin down where your electricity comes from.

Environmentally conscious Maryland residents can take solace in knowing the state requires 3.5 percent of retail electricity come from renewable sources. Outside of that, however, the kinds of energy delivered are mainly determined by what’s cheapest on the open market.

 

Going the extra green mile

Montgomery County residents can go above and beyond when it comes to greening their electricity bill, and have a good deal of control over the process. In addition to regular electricity, residents can add green energy to their monthly utility bill (called “green power marketing”)—this is a simple and flexible way for residents and businesses to use green energy from environmentally preferable sources without installing solar panels or other more-permanent systems.

Electricity infrastructureAccording to Mary Madigan, a senior energy analyst with CQI Associates, clean energy is typically available in 25-percent increments based on total annual electricity use.

“Maryland’s power is much greener than other states,” Madigan said. “But if you want to do even more and purchase voluntary credits, you can pick whatever amount of green you want.”

 

The benefits (and costs) of switching

Renewable energy is no longer an expensive novelty. Adopting now is not cost-prohibitive, and comes at a time when the clean electricity industry is working hard to ramp up its infrastructure.

Leasing solar panels (also known as a power purchase agreement or PPA) often occurs at no up-front cost to the customer. Customers then essentially purchase the electricity the panels generate on their rooftops, and often—though not necessarily—at a rate similar to or lower than what they might pay a traditional power company.

Switching to green power at the source, so to speak, means less hassle and no new hardware. It also usually means paying 5-8 percent more than for average electricity, according to Madigan.

A lot to gain

That increase may be worth it to customers who value an easy transition. The extra cost can even carry an added benefit.

“You’re reducing your carbon footprint and helping those industries that are creating clean power,” Toll said. “Solar and wind are more expensive, but they’re scaling up, and that gap will continue to narrow…Signing up makes it more likely that those industries will succeed.”

Retail green power charges appear directly on your monthly electricity billNot only is switching to green power a good step in reducing your carbon footprint and supporting new green power sources, but can also help the County meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals.

“Montgomery County has aggressive climate protection goals, and we encourage all our residents and businesses to take steps to reduce their footprint where they can,” says Michelle Vigen, Senior Energy Planner with DEP.  “To anyone considering a green power purchase, DEP recommends exploring several options, reading the fine print, and ultimately choosing the option that best meets your needs and values.”

 

Help is available

There is a wide range of companies and resources that can help consumers navigate the process of shopping around and switching.

Image of contractors performing a quick home energy checkup.Utilities provide straightforward energy audits for $100 (with utility incentive support) and can facilitate everything from home upgrades to energy switches.

Third-party energy consulting firms can help residents find the best deal for them and can often plug them into a larger energy co-op, which lowers prices by grouping homes and businesses together for bulk discounts. Because these firms typically receive fees from energy suppliers for this service, the assistance can come at no cost to individuals.

“We will shop and negotiate on your behalf,” Madigan said. “We help throughout the process. We know the best terms for contracts. We do all the homework and we know what a good deal is.”

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By Scott Harris. Scott is a freelance writer who lives in Montgomery County and covers the environment and other topics. He may be reached at scottharriswriter@gmail.com.

Special thanks to Brian Toll with Ecobeco, an energy and home-design consulting firm headquartered in Rockville, and Mary Madigan with CQI Associates, a Columbia-based energy consulting firm that works extensively in Montgomery County, for contributing their expertise to this article. Appearing in this article does not confer an official endorsement or approval from the Montgomery County Government or its agencies.



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