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Are NW Residents Willing to Pay for More Renewable Energy?

April 9, 2012 | Boise State Public Radio/Idaho Public Television
CONTRIBUTED BY:
Aaron Kunz

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  • Lothar Pietz of Boise, Idaho says he is willing to pay more for green energy. His main concern is the conservation of natural resources. credit: Aaron Kunz
  • Jamie Utz of Boise says her concern is over the enviromental impact of legacy power sources. Higher energy prices would have her re-evaluate her power use and likely reduce demand. credit: Aaron Kunz
Lothar Pietz of Boise, Idaho says he is willing to pay more for green energy. His main concern is the conservation of natural resources. | credit: Aaron Kunz | rollover image for more

BOISE, Idaho — Northwest residents say they want more clean energy and less of their electricity from fossil fuels. But are they willing to pay for it?

Renewable energy is praised for its ability to provide power without emitting carbon into the atmosphere. Wind, solar, biomass and geothermal are currently in use in the Northwest. But so is coal and natural gas — both carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

Boise resident Alex Feldman says he is concerned about the legacy we are leaving for future generations.

“I guess I don’t want to go down in history as the generation that sort of screwed it up,” Feldman says, explaining why he is more than willing to pay more each month for renewable energy like wind and solar.

EarthFix spoke to several people who say they are willing to pay more. Lothar Pietz of Boise, Idaho says there will likely come a time when fossil fuels run out. He says it makes sense to start reducing our dependency on a finite resource.

Jamie Utz says not only is she willing to pay more, but she says it would force her to reduce her energy usage to ease the impact on her pocketbook.

They aren’t alone. In a survey conducted for EarthFix by Davis Hibbitts & Midghall Research, Northwest residents indicated they have a growing appetite for green energy.

On average, respondents said, in 10 years, they want nearly half the region’s energy to come from renewable sources: wind, solar, geothermal and biomass. How much do Northwesterners want from coal and natural gas? About 13 percent, according to the same survey. In addition, survey participants want the region’s reliance on renewables to increase and its use of carbon-emitting energy to shrink.

EarthFix Survey Webversion.Q22-23

So people say they want more renewable energy … But are they willing to pay for it?

Utilities in the Northwest have programs that let customers do just that. They can pay a monthly premium between $3 and $13 for green energy programs that put money into the development of wind, solar, and other renewable energy projects.

Portland General Electric leads the nation in signing up customers for renewable energy programs, says spokesman Steve Corson.

“Our customers have a desire to reduce their environmental footprint,” he says. “And I think that’s reflected in our enrollment numbers.”

Key Factors that Affect Electricity Prices

  • Fuels: Coal is relatively inexpensive while natural gas tends to be more costly.
  • Power plants: Construction and maintenance costs are greater for some kinds of power plants than others.
  • Transmission and distribution lines: Maintaining and using the transmission system to deliver electricity contributes to the cost of electricity.
  • Weather conditions: Rain and snow can provide water for hydropower generation. Extreme heat can increase the demand for electricity for cooling.
  • Regulations: In some States prices are fully regulated by Public Service Commissions, while in others there is a combination of unregulated prices (for generators) and regulated prices (for transmission and distribution). *Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

So exactly how many PGE customers are signed up to pay more for green power? Last year, the total was 10 percent.

That rate is even lower elsewhere in the Northwest.

Seattle City Light in Washington had less than 3 percent of its customers enroll in the green power program in 2011. Among Idaho Power customers, enrollment was less than 1 percent.

Idaho Power vice-president Lisa Grow attributes the low participation rate in Idaho and Eastern Oregon to customers’ perceptions of dams.

“You know, there are a lot of people that already think they are paying for green power because they think our power is mostly green because we are usually half hydro,” she says.

It comes down to cost for some costumers. Christine Acosta of Oregon says she already pays too much for power and can’t afford an increase to help expand green energy. She blames the recession.

The cost of green-energy premiums is not lost on Idaho’s Jamie Utz, who says she could afford to pay up to $50-dollars more a month.

“We do have to pay for it initially up front,” she says. “And hopefully it will lead to alternative energy that isn’t so expensive because it will become more commonplace.”

(Sources for this story came to us through the Public Insight Network. You can learn more and sign up to participate by visiting our stations website.)

(Correction: April 10, 2012. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 5 percent of Portland General Electric’s customers had signed up last year for green power. The correct figure is 10 percent. )

Where our energy comes from and the impacts

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the majority of power in the U.S. comes from not one but many sources. They include coal, hydro, natural gas, wind and solar with a growing amount from other less developed sources like biomass and geothermal.

Each has it’s place in the energy portfolio and each has strengths and weakness. For instance, coal has the ability to provide steady power in large quantities and it can be stored if energy demand is low. But coal is known to pump carbon emissions in the the air and is becoming more expensive due to strict environmental laws. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts less coal use in 2012.

Coal emits sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and mercury, which have been linked to acid rain, smog, and health issues. Coal also emits carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that has been in the news because of its link to climate change. Coal accounted for 37% of the total U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide released into the Earth’s atmosphere in 2010. -EIA

Natural Gas is cleaner burning than coal but still utilizes a resource that pollutes the air. Right now natural gas is cheap and can also be stored and quickly switched on and off as needed. This is not an endless resource. Natural gas is also difficult to obtain in the U.S. using a controversial method called hydraulic fracturing or fracking. The U.S. Energy Information Administration also indicates a concern over leaking methane into the air at production and natural gas storage sites.

Wind and solar is an endless resource which means it won’t run out. But these two sources are dependent on the wind blowing and the sun shining. That means they are intermittent and can’t be depended on to supply power 24/7. These resources are also relatively clean. Aside from manufacturing the parts and shipping them to a site - they do not release carbon emissions like coal and natural gas.

Hydro is one of the first renewable energy sources. It harnesses the power of water to turn large turbines to generate electricity. The Northwest is one of the most hydro developed locations in the world. There is more than 100 dams currently in operation in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Dams have been accused to slowing the water flow, disrupting river ecology, causing river temperatures to rise and blocking fish migration. Hydro is not counted as renewable energy in Oregon and Washington’s Renewable Portfolio Standards. Idaho does not have a Renewable Portfolio Standard and isn’t actively seeking one.

  • Washington: 20% of it’s power must come from renewable energy by 2020.
  • Oregon: 25% of it’s power must come from renewable energy by 2025.

Seattle City Lights Green Enrollment

Portland General Electric

Idaho Power Green Enrollment

© 2012 Boise State Public Radio/Idaho Public Television
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