`Green' electricity offers consumers nonpolluting choice

Infant industry claims people will pay more if energy is `clean'

June 27, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

A greener energy future for America may be found atop BJ's Wholesale Club in Conshohocken, Pa.

As shoppers cruise the discount store's aisles, 1,400 solar panels stretched out on the roof generate power cleanly and noiselessly for sale to customers in the Philadelphia area.

The 43-kilowatt array, installed in April, produces enough energy to serve just a handful of homes. But to some, it represents the vanguard of a "green power" revolution, made possible by bringing competition to the traditionally dirty business of generating electricity.

"We think it's an important first step, a demonstration of the kind of change the market can bring," said Thomas Rawls, chief environmental officer of Green Mountain Energy Resources.

The Vermont company, which is buying the BJ's power, has created a stir in the energy industry by marketing "clean" electricity in Pennsylvania and California, two of the first states in the country to let residents choose their power company.

As Maryland and more than 20 other states move to deregulate, experts are divided over whether such "green power" will save the planet or is just another fad. How many people are willing to pay a premium for peace of mind about the environment every time they flick on the lights?

"It's what I call the organic produce of electricity," said Stephen Connors, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Energy Laboratory. "You are willing to pay more -- not a lot more, but a little -- to get the good stuff."

So far, Green Mountain has signed up more than 80,000 customers in Pennsylvania and California. The company peddles coal- and nuclear-free electricity contracts like blends of coffee, with names like "Eco Smart" and "Nature's Choice." The more solar, wind or pollution-free renewable energy in the package, the more expensive it is.

Conectiv, the former Delmarva Power & Light Co., also has garnered more than 10,000 customers in the Philadelphia area for its two "blends" of either 50 percent or 100 percent renewable energy.

"It's a lot of marketing hype so far," said Wenonah Hauter, Critical Mass Energy Project director for Public Citizen, a Washington consumer and environmental group. She contends that "green power" is more of a sales gimmick than it is a way to clean up the energy industry.

"It's the gourmet option," she said. "We're talking about maybe 5 percent of residential consumers. That's about where organic food is after years and years of marketing."

Burning coal, oil and natural gas -- the leading means for producing electricity -- is a major source of air pollution. Fossil-fuel power plants contribute to smog, a summertime health hazard that forces thousands with breathing problems indoors on hot days. Power plants also add to the threat of global warming.

Smog and greenhouse gases could worsen as more states deregulate their power industries, if older coal-fired plants crank up to satisfy customers' quest for cheap electricity. Many aging coal burners are cheaper to operate in part because they have been exempted from federal clean-air standards.

A study last year found early warning signs: Coal-fired power generation grew in 1996 while less-polluting natural gas-fired generation declined. Emissions of smog-forming pollutants from coal plants also increased.

The federal government has moved to avert deregulation's threat to air quality. The Environmental Protection Agency targeted power plants in the fall in ordering a cleanup of smog-forming emissions in 22 states and the District of Columbia.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., for instance, plans to spend $40 million to meet the EPA pollution limits, on top of $120 million in improvements to existing plants to comply with air-quality requirements imposed by Maryland and other East Coast states hurt by smog.

But the federal rules do not take effect until 2003, and they are being challenged by Midwestern states that are home to some of the most polluting power plants. Also among the opponents is a utility industry group to which BGE belongs.

Environmental groups, however, say the federal rules are important as the industry deregulates.

"We want restructuring and competition, but we want to do it right," said Ashok Gupta, senior energy economist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "If you don't get the rules right, things can end up getting worse."

If all power plants must meet the same pollution standards, experts argue, then opening the electric utility industry to price competition could help clean up the environment at the same time it saves money for consumers.

Market pressures to produce cheaper power will spur installation of new generation technology, such as combined cycle gas turbines, which are up to 50 percent more efficient at converting fuel to electricity, and 10 to 100 times cleaner than existing facilities.

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