renewable energy

DYK: You can choose your energy supplier in Maryland?

DYK: You can choose your energy supplier in Maryland?
It is very common for Montgomery County residents to think that their only choices for an energy supplier are Pepco, Potomac Edison, or BGE. In reality you have many more options and freedom of choice. The state of Maryland began offering their residents the power to choose their own electricity provider in 1999. With this change, comes the ability to choose your retail energy provider, all of whom attempt to offer the most competitive rates and packages for state-wide electricity consumers. As a consumer, you can not only save on your monthly energy costs by shopping for lower rates, but you can even take advantage of green energy options, and choose to have your electricity come from renewable energy sources. When searching for a new energy supplier, you should make sure you do your research as my family recently learned.  
Chad's family

Chad’s Family

Lessons from a new MoCo resident

When I first found out my family and I would be moving to Montgomery County from Orlando, Florida, I knew I would miss the sunshine, but not the electric bill.  My electricity bill easily reached well over $300 per month starting in June and lasting into September; and it was not that much lower in the months before and after. However, when I came to Maryland I discovered a benefit I had never experienced. For the first time, I would be allowed to choose my own utility company. In Florida, residents do not have the option to shop around for utility providers. Instead, one is assigned according to the current address or zip code in which one resides. You can imagine what a benefit it can be for an energy provider to have no competition. As an energy consumer, being able to select an energy provider allowed me the ability to choose where the source of energy comes from. You can choose non-renewable sources like coal, gas, and nuclear, or renewable sources like wind, solar, and hydro. I could even decide to mix and match sources or select a provider based on price and location of the company. The pricing for my residence ranges between $0.0729 and $0.089 per kilowatt hour (kWh), which gives me a great price scope to choose what best works for me. There were two resources I used while trying to make a decision:
  • Maryland Clean Energy  provided a clear, simple, user-friendly formatted guide to make my selections, breaking down the necessary information for me to easily understand.
  • Clearly Energy  also provided a clear, and easy way to understand where my energy costs are going and how I could save. All I had to do was put my zip code into the search engine and I could find the best rates for my home.
Now, my monthly energy bill is not only less than what I have paid in the past, but lower than I would have ever expected.  It’s amazing how the needs of the consumer are catered to in such a beneficial manner here in Montgomery County.  It certainly makes me wonder why all energy consumers nationwide are not granted the same benefits.
Chad Baisden is a new Montgomery County resident who resides in Gaithersburg with his wife and two wonderful daughters.

Rockville Teens become part of the NOAA Climate Stewards Community this Summer: Part Three

Rockville Teens become part of the NOAA Climate Stewards Community this Summer: Part Three
This year, the Residential Energy Program Manager, Larissa Johnson, became part of the NOAA Climate Stewards Community. As part of the community, she had to develop a climate stewardship action project with students from Montgomery County. This summer she partnered with the City of Rockville to complete an action program titled “Source to Socket: Learning the FUNdamentals of Energy Literacy.” Students from the City of Rockville Community Services Youth Programs participated in a four day training session which connected them to their energy sources and encouraged them to make energy conscious choices. One of the students, Jasmine Jackson, a rising Senior at Richard Montgomery High School documented the entire experience for us, for the My Green Montgomery blog. Each day, the students focused on a different area in which energy impacts their lives. This is Jasmine’s fourth and final blog post.

Photo of students on a swing in Rockville, captured with a thermal camera.

Day Four: Energy and Solutions

July 27, 2017 Today I am writing about my final day project with the County to work towards being consciously aware of our energy usage and impact on our world. On this final day, our goals were to take all the information we have learned during the last three sessions and come up with campaign ideas for the City of Rockville. We also needed to understand how thermal cameras can be used when communicating with the public and to reflect on how our choices impact the world. This is the last day doing this project with Ms. Johnson, Ms. Erica, and Ms. Dianne and it was bittersweet. We started with an activity outside, as always, and this time we played two new games. The first game was called Jedi Mind Trick and was super fun. Then we split into group of two or three and played a game called This Week in Energy Conservation where each member in the group had to be either the cameraman, the desk reporter, or the field reporter. You can see a picture of me doing the activity to the right.   Both games were fun and when we were done, we walked to City Hall into the Diamondback room where we all sat down to discuss the final activity. Before we broke up into groups, Ms. Erica presented information on the City Climate Action Plan and we learned about climate change and how it affects our lives and Rockville. In the future, it is predicted that by 2050 there will be heatwaves and we need to make changes now. After learning about that, we went over the projects we did yesterday on Community Based Social Marketing and then we split into groups to take iconic pictures of Rockville Town Center with the thermal camera. It was a nice long 15 minute walk around Town Center as we visited different spots. It was as if we were on a treasure hunt but we didn’t get no real treasure and that was fine with everyone. By end of the day what matters was having fun while learning something new. After 15 minutes, we walked back and discussed our experience as we all wrote down our final ideas to try to convince others around us to save energy as much as we can. After coming together and discussing our ideas, we learned that it is hard to convince people to do things. I also earned that dark surfaces are hotter than others and about the temperature on things like buildings. I learned that it is hot outside but cooler in the shade under or near trees. After this program, I learned that I want to help and somehow teach others to care about their energy use. If we don’t start worrying about our future for our generation and for future generations, who will? I hope this blog reaches many people and gets you to think about how you are using (and wasting) energy every day. The only way we can change the world for the better is by working together and coming up with creative solutions like solar ovens made from pizza boxes. On behalf of the other students in the program, I want to thank everyone: Ms. Johnson, Ms. Erica, Ms. Dianne, Ms. Kate, and all the other people we met and worked with during this wonderful cool experience. Thank you for teaching us about energy use and how we can make a difference in our own lives and in the world.  

One of the final project ideas from the students.

 

Rockville Teens become part of the NOAA Climate Stewards Community this Summer: Part Two

Rockville Teens become part of the NOAA Climate Stewards Community this Summer: Part Two
This year, the Residential Energy Program Manager, Larissa Johnson, became part of the NOAA Climate Stewards Community. As part of the community, she had to develop a climate stewardship action project with students from Montgomery County. This summer she partnered with the City of Rockville to complete an action program titled “Source to Socket: Learning the FUNdamentals of Energy Literacy.” Students from the City of Rockville Community Services Youth Programs participated in a four day training session which connected them to their energy sources and encouraged them to make energy conscious choices. One of the students, Jasmine Jackson, a rising Senior at Richard Montgomery High School documented the entire experience for us in a series of blog posts. Each day, the students focused on a different area in which energy impacts their lives. This is Jasmine’s second blog post in a series of three.

Day Two: Energy and Rockville  

July 25, 2017 Hey everyone, this blog post is about the second day of the project. The goal today was to learn about the role of city government in energy choices, and to understand the components of the Rockville City Climate Action Plan and their role in helping the City educate the public about it. We were also going to experiment with and understand how “tools of the trade” work, such as the IR thermometers (infrared thermometers), thermal cameras, and light meters. The final goal of the day was to perform an energy audit on Rockville City Hall, to gather information that will help shape the next steps for the City. It was another normal day getting up and joining with the rest of students. Every day we did something new, which always made the day interesting. Today everyone was eating and chatting over of what we were going to do today after making our solar ovens yesterday. Ms. Johnson mentioned that today we were discussing how we can reduce energy within our homes and within Rockville. Before starting the activity, we all went outside and played a new game, it was called Ro Sham Bo Rockstar. It was exactly like the rock paper scissors game but if you lost you must follow the person you lost to and cheer them on so they can beat the other person. It was a cool game. After that we headed back toward the Rockville City Hall, the Mayor and City Council room where we met two new guests, Ms. Erica Shingara and Ms. Dianne Neville. At City Hall, we learned about the energy we use at home and in public buildings. For example, did you know that your thermostat should be set at 78 degree during the summer, using cold water to wash your clothes can help reduce the amount of money you’re spending and that your shower should only take five minutes??? That was kind of shocking for me because everyone knows that I love taking showers for more than five minutes. We went through a Power Point presentation with Ms. Erica that showed us how much energy Rockville currently uses, and then we watched a few videos that highlighted some of the energy “tools of the trade” like the IR thermometers, thermal cameras, and light meters. Ms. Erica and Ms. Dianne taught everyone so much about how much energy everything around us use daily, such as building, phones, and lights. To learn more about energy use, everyone split into different groups and we were given a bag and some materials to take picture of our process. We used many different tools like the kill-a-watt meter, light meter, thermometer, and thermal camera. I also learned about keeping track of lighting, heat, and temperature around each floor of City Hall and how important that is to reducing the amount of money the City pays for electricity. It is also important for the City of Rockville to improve their structures to use less energy. A lot of appliances/lights take up energy in the building and there are many ways to change and conserve energy. Even little things like chargers can take up a lot of energy. Lots of things that seem insignificant can make a huge difference. We each took turns using each tool within the different group and kept track of the amount of energy that was most used around the office. It was probably the phone, the window, and the computer that was the hottest.  After these activities we all came back together and talked about what we observed and learned throughout the day.

Day Three: Energy and Communication/Community

July 26, 2017 Hey everyone, Jasmine again. I am writing this blog about my third day project with the county to work towards being consciously aware of our energy usage and impact on our world. Our goal for today was to understand that energy decisions are influenced by economic, political, and environmental, and social factors. We also learned about the basics of community based social marketing and how that plays a role in the outreach that cities, counties, and state agencies do. By the end of the week, we were asked to come up with a plan on how to do outreach to a specific audience in Rockville. Another day joining with the rest of the young volunteers.  Everyone was eating and chatting about what we learned yesterday when Ms. Johnson came back and told us we were doing another game outside. We all went outside and play a new game called Ro Sham Bo Evolution,  another version of Rock Paper Scissors. In this game, we started as an egg and once we won, we became a chicken and then when we beat another chicken, we became a Rockstar and then a superhero. It was a quick game, I wish it could’ve last longer but it was still fun! After the game, we walked back to the Department of Environmental Protection to learn more about communicating with the public. Before we went over the findings from the energy audit, Ms. Johnson talked to us about  what Marylanders think about energy and how the County communicates with the public through My Green Montgomery stories. Then we started discussed what we saw while doing the energy audits with Ms. Erica and Ms. Dianne. I volunteered to write on the white board and we made a list of the things we noticed during the energy audits. We were trying to determine what the common themes were. For instance, a lot of people left lights on when they weren’t in their offices. Some people left their chargers plugged in even when they weren’t charging anything and a lot of people have personal coffee makers on their desks but don’t use them that much. We watched a video some videos about Behavior Change  and Community Based Social Marketing (CBSM) and then we used the principals of CBSM to determine what audiences, messages, barriers, and benefits would help us with an outreach campaign for the City, the County, and especially for teens. One of our suggestions was for us to become the “energy police” where we would go around to different offices and issue citations and warning for people who are using too much energy. That was one of the best ideas. We wrote down our main ideas that could work to convince others to save energy. Then we split into three different groups to focus on different tactics, one group worked to create a meme, one worked on creating a competition for City employees, and one worked on finding a quote or a saying to remind a person to turn off everything when they leave a room. After we presented our ideas to each other, a new guest, Reuven Walder from ecobeco and a member of the Montgomery County Energy and Air Quality Advisory Committee came to talk to us about things we can do in our homes. He told us about what he does for a living, that he helps people reduce their energy usage. He also talked about the components of the Quick Home Energy Checkup, something that he encouraged us all to get. Today I learned how to make changes that can help everyone save energy. We learned how to get people to do things we want them to do by trying to understand the target audience. I learned how to use positive reinforcement. We learned different tools that can help me encourage people to do better things. Some of those tools the help save energy are prompts, commitment, and norms.     Click here to read Jasmine’s third and final blog post in this series about “Source to Socket: Learning the FUNdamentals of Energy Literacy.”

Rockville Teens become part of the NOAA Climate Stewards Community this Summer: Part One

Rockville Teens become part of the NOAA Climate Stewards Community this Summer: Part One
This year, the Residential Energy Program Manager, Larissa Johnson, became part of the NOAA Climate Stewards Community. As part of the community, she had to develop a climate stewardship action project with students from Montgomery County. This summer she partnered with the City of Rockville to complete an action program titled “Source to Socket: Learning the FUNdamentals of Energy Literacy.” Students from the City of Rockville Community Services Youth Programs participated in a four-day training session which connected them to their energy sources and encouraged them to make energy conscious choices. Each day, the students focused on a different area in which energy impacts their lives. One of the students, Jasmine Jackson, a rising Senior at Richard Montgomery High School documented the entire experience for us in a series of blog posts. 

Day One: Energy and You

July 24, 2017 Hey there! I’m Jasmine and I will be a Senior at Richard Montgomery High School this Fall. I’m writing this blog about my four-day project with the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection and City of Rockville Summer Civic Leadership as part of the NOAA Climate Stewards program. During the four days, we talked about how to connect people to their energy sources and encourage them to make energy conscious choices. I joined this program because it’s in my nature to help others and to learn new things. Plus, I needed a break from my phone and a reminder to enjoy the little things that people often don’t take a time to enjoy. As part of the Community Service Program, we meet every morning before 9:00 am to learn about our project and do the work. This Monday, it was a normal day getting up and joining with the rest of my group. Since joining this program, I have met a lot of young volunteers just like me who are trying to make a change within the world. Some of the other students also attend Richard Montgomery and the others go to Rockville High School. While we were eating, Ms. Larissa Johnson came in to talk to us about what she does in Montgomery County and to give us an overview about what we would be doing during the week. To be honest, I have always been quite curious about energy usage around the world so I was excited for this program. Ms. Johnson was a cool, nice lady and she had us do an activity to introduce herself and get to know each other. When we walked outside, I noticed she had pizza boxes and I was wondering about what was in those (more on those soon!) The game had us introduce each other by name but the twist was we all had to do some type of dance move. It was funny and fun at the same time. After we did our warm up activity, we all walked over to the Department of Environmental Protection to learn about energy in a meeting room. We learned about how much energy we use every day, where that energy comes from, and how we can reduce our energy consumption. We did a few worksheets like Carbon Footprint Calculator and Household Rating Guide . Then suddenly Ms. Johnson made things more interesting and brought out those pizza boxes. We had discussed renewable energy earlier and it turns out we were going to turn the pizza boxes into a solar oven using the sun’s energy! I never heard of such a thing…a pizza box stove!  I couldn’t wait to see how it would work. We split into four groups while another student read the directions out loud and we all followed to make our own solar ovens. You can find out how to make one here.   Suddenly, we got another surprise – we were making s’mores using our solar oven pizza box and it was the most awesome idea I heard ever! I wish we could have done this in school too! We place the chocolate and marshmallow in the center of the oven, so that it is directly under the plastic-wrap window.  After that we waited for our s’mores to cool, and ate them. Today, I learned how to save energy around the house and other places we go so we can reduce the amount of energy we use every day and save money. We also learned to create a pizza box oven powered by solar energy to make s’mores.   Click here to read Jasmine’s second blog post in this series about “Source to Socket: Learning the FUNdamentals of Energy Literacy.”

Celebrating the success of the first Countywide solar co-op

Celebrating the success of the first Countywide solar co-op
In MD SUN‘s first attempt at creating a county-wide solar co-op, the Montgomery County Solar Co-op made history. It is the largest single co-op in the Community Power Network! Congratulations to the 90 people who joined the Co-op, MD Sun and all the partners!

Meet with Co-Op Team

The Montgomery County Solar Co-op kicked off last May with an information session hosted by the city of Takoma Park. MD SUN led five public solar information sessions over the summer to educate homeowners about solar technology, economics and the solar co-op process. MD SUN is a project of the Community Power Network and is a non-profit effort focused on helping homeowners go solar while building a network of solar supporters throughout the state. MD SUN organized the co-op with promotional help from the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, the Cities of Rockville, Gaithersburg and Takoma Park, Poolesville Green, and the Adat Shalom congregation in Bethesda.

Finding Members and Building a Co-op

In early June, the group solicited bids from area installers through an open and competitive bidding process. Co-op members selected Solar Energy World to offer discounted pricing and work with the group.  Nearly 90 group members have already signed contracts to go solar!     Montgomery County Solar Co-op Member

Real Energy Savings, Real Change

The Co-Op’s work has resulted in 790 kilowatts of solar being installed and more than $2 million dollars invested by Montgomery County homeowners in clean energy. By the end of the sign-up period in September, 244 Montgomery County homeowners had joined the group and countless more learned about the importance of solar.  The Co-Op members gathered to celebrate the effort on Thursday, February 23 at 6:30 p.m. with an informal potluck celebration at Rockville City Hall.  MDSUN presented DEP staff with the Solar Leader Award for assisting with the Montgomery County Solar Co-op, which now includes 88 homeowners investing in solar energy!

Solar energy technology, demystified

Solar energy technology, demystified
DEP’s Energy Intern Miles Braxton dives into the nuts and bolts about how solar photovoltaic (PV) panels collect energy from the sun and convert it to electricity.  

Why renewables?

Renewable energy has been gaining traction in recent years because more and more people are seeing the environmental impacts of using fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. Burning fossil fuels to produce energy can produce hazardous byproducts, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) gas, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, soot, ash, and mercury. These waste gases get trapped in the atmosphere and contribute to the greenhouse effect, and in turn, anthropogenic climate change (or global warming). Also, with increasing energy prices and ability to generate energy during power outages, renewable solar energy is becoming popular in Montgomery County and across the nation. Before deciding whether solar is right for your home or business, let’s take a look at how solar panel technology works, the benefits of solar energy, and where the solar market is headed.  

Why is solar energy great for the environment?

  • Solar Energy Is Replenishable. Because the sun comes out (almost) each day, solar energy is a fairly predictable and reliable source of renewable energy. Even during cloudy days or at night, a home with a solar panel system paired with battery storage can even access energy harnessed by the sun when the sun isn’t shining.
  Solar panels at the USDA Solar Project
  • No Emissions, No/Low Maintenance, No Problem. To generate electricity, solar cells emit zero byproduct waste, in contrast to fossil fuel energy sources. Once solar cells are installed by a licensed professional, they do not require regular maintenance, since there is no water or moving parts involved in the system. It is one of the easiest renewable energy systems to install, and costs little to no money to maintain.
 
  • It Just Makes Sense. According to the Department of Energy, “173,000 terawatts of solar energy strikes the Earth continuously. That’s more than 10,000 times the world’s total energy use.” Solar panels, depending on their type and how they are made, can convert 11 to 18 percent of the solar energy radiated onto the earth to useful energy. Solar is the energy of the future!

It’s already relatively affordable and easy to install on your home or business, but once we fully harness the sun’s energy it will be a stronger power source as well. Scientists and engineers are now researching different ways to increase the efficiency (radiation conversion percentage) of solar cells.

 

How do solar panels generate electricity?

Consumers are interested in solar panels and the rise of solar technology, but may not know the science behind converting solar radiation into electricity. There are several types of solar cells, each with a similar operating process, but constructed using different chemical compounds and materials. The most commonly used type of solar technology in the solar panel industry is monocrystalline silicon. Just as monologue means a long speech by one person, monocrystalline simply means one crystal. In this type of atomic structure, characterized by one continuous crystal of silicon, electrons flow more efficiently through the cell because atoms line up in consistent rows and columns. In contrast, polycrystalline silicon combines multiple crystals in the solar panel.  Since the electrons are further away from each other in a polycrystalline panel, there is some energy loss, and thus the panels have a lower efficiency than monocrystalline panels.  
Graphic of atomic models of crystalline structures. (By Own work.original work: Cdang, released under cc-by-sa-3.0,2.5,2.0,1.0)

Above are the atomic models of crystalline structures. Monocrystalline has a higher solar energy conversion rate (efficiency) than polycrystalline because the atoms are compact.

Going a layer deeper into how it all works

There are two different layers in a monocrystalline silicon solar cell: N-Type silicon and P-Type silicon. When a photon hits an atom in the N-Type layer, it knocks an electron down to the P-Type layer which is accepting of the negative charge from the electron. When a wire, or conductor of some sort, is placed between the two layers, the electrons moving to the P-Type layer can now travel back to the N-type layer. This flow of electrons, excited by photons, creates electricity.
Diagram of a solar panel, including the N-Type layer and P-Type layer. (SolarPowerBeginner.com)

Diagram of a solar panel, including the N-Type layer and P-Type layer. (SolarPowerBeginner.com)

During this process, the electricity from converted sunlight goes directly into an inverter to transform the voltage from Direct Current (DC) to Alternating Current (AC).  Our household electronics cannot use DC power so the DC needs to be converted to AC.  Once transformed to AC, the electricity is ready to be used by your TV, refrigerator, or cell phone—or can be fed into a battery for storage. For more information and diagrams on how solar cells work, check out the solar energy resources offered by the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.   Check out this video from the Department of Energy on Solar PV technology:  

Future of solar technology

The solar industry is developing and expanding each day in laboratories across the world. Thin-film solar panels are a new technology that is increasing in popularity. These thin films do not need thick silicon wafers to convert sunlight into electricity; their thickness is about a nanometer thick. Solar customers and enthusiasts are using these as roof shingles as a brand-new alternative to the big silicon panels that we’re used to seeing on rooftops.
Photo of thin-film solar on a residential roof.

Thin-film technology embedded in the Solar Shingles (manufactured by CertainTeed).

  At the University of Virginia, I have been fortunate to work with Dr. Mool Gupta in 2015 and the Department of Electrical Engineering to do some interesting research on solar cell materials. There is a mineral structure called perovskite which has recently been on the rise in the solar industry and laboratory research. In 2009, thin-film perovskite cells had an efficiency of 3.8 percent. As of March of 2016, scientists and engineers from Korea University of Science and Technology have discovered a method in which the cells convert 22.1 percent of solar radiation into electricity. Perovskite structured materials have a very great potential in the industry because they are very easy to recreate and inexpensive to mass produce.  
Photo of thin-film perovskite solar cells

Thin-film perovskite solar cells.

  Solar technology is becoming the energy of the future because it is rapidly expanding and becoming more inexpensive to produce. Based off of the current trend in solar cell efficiency, it will be able to supply our energy needs in the decades to come. As solar panels become more efficient and commercially available, solar technology could be available and affordable for every home in the United States.  

What’s next for solar energy in Montgomery County?

To lower the rate of emissions of greenhouse gases and particulates into the atmosphere, solar technology is going to need higher efficiencies, but also more customers. We can make that happen here in Montgomery County with solar co-ops, where a group of homeowners use their combined bulk buying power to save on the total cost of going solar. Residents can sign up for the County’s solar co-op before September 30, 2016 to join.Solar Panels. Copyright mjmonty, Flickr   The state of Maryland also passed community solar regulations in June 2016, so more people can go solar in the near future. Community solar (or virtual net metering) allows residents who are renters, have shaded roofs, or cannot install solar panels for other reasons to subscribe to a solar garden and get credit for the renewable energy generation on their utility bill. Plenty of opportunities to support solar are available in Montgomery County today, and there are more on the horizon! Sign up for DEP’s monthly Montgomery County Energy News newsletter to stay up-to-date on solar co-ops, community solar, and energy-efficiency opportunities and events in the County.  


Miles Q. Braxton is an Environmental Science major concentrating in renewable energy at the University of Virginia. He will be graduating in the spring of 2018. He is currently an Energy Intern at the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection.

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

In Maryland, switching to green power is like flipping a switch
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. Retail green power charges appear directly on your monthly electricity bill

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.” Not 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.

Want to go solar? One resident examines the options

Want to go solar? One resident examines the options
On February 15th, 2016, fellow co-op members Thomas Wellems and Marilyn Powell (pictured in the image above) became the 27th household of the Rockville Solar Co-op to see electricity generated from the sun via rooftop solar panels powering their home. Since then 10 members have also been connected, and others are in the queue for panel installation and grid hookup. When all 63 active members are connected, the co-op will be harnessing the sun with 442 kilowatts (kW) of solar power capacity.

What is a solar co-op?

Solar co-ops are groups of interested residents and businesses that use their collective buying power to lower the cost of solar panel equipment and installation. Joining a solar co-op reduces the cost by having one installer purchase all of the equipment and perform all of the installations (the Rockville co-op used two). Additionally, organizations like MD SUN can assist with the co-op with additional benefits such as having expert guidance through the process, advice from current solar homeowners, and participation in selection of the group’s vendor or vendors.   Image of solar panels on a roof   The Rockville co-op, which began in April 2015, is the largest and most successful of its kind so far in Maryland. It includes members who are interested in having their homes powered by solar energy but are still considering the best way to do that. Our family falls into that category. We’ve switched a lot of our previous gas consumption to electric by having a geoexchange (geothermal) system installed to provide heating and cooling, using an electric mower, and leasing a LEAF electric vehicle. It would be great to have all this powered straight from the sun. What are our options?

Option #1: Own

Pay to have solar panels that we will own installed on the roof (or elsewhere on the property).

Option #2: Lease

Have a company install solar panels on our roof, via a power purchase agreement, that we would host in exchange for a set, reliable electricity rate, but not own.

Option #3: Community solar

Put no solar panels on our own roof/property, but sun-power our house by joining a community solar block. This will allow us to gain the benefits of solar without installing panels.

Examining the options

Because our house is reasonably suitable for solar (facing mostly east and a little south – with completely south-facing being the ideal), and because we’re not exactly sure how long we’ll remain in this house, option #1 or #3 appear to be our best choices. However, leasing solar panels may be a viable option for other homeowners. Using information gleaned mostly from the informative and active MD-SUN email group (thanks especially to MD-SUN Program Director Corey Ramsden, and to all the other members of various area co-ops who have shared so much useful information), these are my thoughts about options currently available to us and other Montgomery County homeowners:
Solar panels that are owned by the homeowner have been shown to increase the home’s value. The upfront cost of installation is mitigated by a 30% federal tax credit (which will now extend through 2019 and then decline gradually to 10 percent by 2022), a $1,000 Maryland Residential Clean Energy Grant, and by selling SRECs (Solar Renewable Energy Certificates) based on the amount of energy the panels produce. There has been much discussion on the MD-SUN list about how best to go about selling SRECs, with the consensus appearing to be that you’re probably best going with a broker. Here’s more information about how to sell your SRECs. Our main obstacle to putting solar panels on our roof has been the additional cost of having to remove a large (but dying) tree and replace the aging roof on our house first. For us and anyone with similar issues of affordability or solar suitability, there is now the option of community solar.
We ruled out option #2 because leasing panels and entering into a power purchase agreement (read about the differences between those here) make the most sense for homeowners who want to eliminate the upfront cost of installation AND who will be in their homes for at least 5 years after installation (at which point the system may often be purchased from the installing company, depending on the terms of your contract). While leasing/PPAs allow you to host solar panels and lock in a consistent electricity rate over time with the solar panel company, selling your house while a lease or PPA is in effect can prove difficult, for reasons outlined in this November 2015 Washington Post article.
A three-year pilot program for community solar was signed into law in Maryland in May 2015, and draft regulations have recently been published that will soon make the program a reality. With community solar, individuals (subscribers) who sign up to buy the energy from a portion of a block of solar panels installed by a local business or community group receive s credit on their utility bill for the amount of power their portion of the block generated. Policies that define how it will operate are still being developed, but it looks very promising, with 30% of capacity set aside for low and moderate income subscribers, full retail credit (same economic benefits as for traditional net metering customers ), and incentive for development at brownfield sites.
We’ll be on the lookout in coming months to see what organizations like Neighborhood Sun offer, and whether community solar or solar panels on our own house make more sense, especially if another solar co-op comes to Montgomery County in 2016. We are grateful to live in a city and state where great incentives are offered to encourage residents to use renewable energy. Guest blog by Helen Triolo. Helen has lived in Rockville for 25 years, and has served on the Rockville Environment Commission since 2015. She and her family continue to work on making their home more energy efficient and their lives less fossil fuel dependent.