Commentary

Wanna know where you can get clean energy? We’re tryin’ to build an app for that.

December 2, 2020 6:00 am

Just 14% of people are aware of clean energy options and less than 2% have successfully signed up.  Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Joe Biden’s recent election is a relief for environmentalists everywhere. Even though this victory may slow environmental devastation, it certainly won’t stop it. Recognizing this, my inner voice continually reminds me: “You don’t have to wait for the next election.”

Raised under the clouds of the Pleasant Prairie coal plant in Southeast Wisconsin, it wasn’t until the age of 29, in an energy policy class, that I fully realized how my asthma was connected to the toxic choices embedded in our energy system. 

Our energy system suffers from the classic problem of what economists call “negative externalities.” Coal and natural gas electricity producers in particular make something that in addition to providing needed electricity also creates harmful emissions that degrade our environment and health — but the producers don’t have to pay the cost of this collateral damage. The rest of us pay for it.  

In this same class, I learned about green pricing programs for the first time. This includes programs like Windsource, which allow electricity customers to pay a little more for energy in exchange for certifiably renewable electricity.

Not only was I amazed by this option, I was floored that these programs were inclusive of renters like myself, and at a cost of less than $10/month for the typical Minnesotan household. As a student I paid a $25 copay each month for an inhaler I shared with my uninsured roommate, but for around $4 a month we received emission-free electricity. This $4 eliminated almost a third of our carbon footprint and generated $12-28 in community health benefits from reduced emissions.

My biggest epiphany came when sharing my experience signing up for Windsource on social media. Friends all over the country asked how they could sign up for green energy, too. In helping them, I discovered how difficult finding and deciphering these programs could be. Since many programs are required to be revenue-neutral, they receive little advertising. As a result, only 14% of people are aware of their options and less than 2% have successfully signed up. 

That’s why we created something called the Green Neighbor Challenge, which recognizes us not as individuals first, but as community members. People who share the air, water, climate and environment. Family and friends who care for many that suffer from chronic health issues or economic insecurity. Neighbors who have the power to change not just our future, but our present, with immediate energy action.

The Green Neighbor Challenge is building a national database and web tool to help Americans find, understand, and sign up for their green energy options (including green pricing, energy efficiency rebates, and more). We are collecting publicly available data and making it useful to everyday people. We are designing advocacy tools that help residents understand energy policy in their state, and get involved or take action to improve policy at the local and state levels. 

Even before the pandemic and resulting recession, one in five US homes reported reducing or foregoing basic necessities like food or medicine to pay an energy bill in 2015. The bottom fifth of homes spent 34% of their income on healthcare. The fate of our health, our economy and our environment are intimately linked. As David Roberts at Vox recently noted, “It would be worth freeing ourselves from fossil fuels even if global warming didn’t exist.”

We don’t know what this new administration will bring. We don’t know who will control the Senate. The Minnesota Legislature will remain split. But I take heart from the wisdom of Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark, which encouraged me to start this very effort:

“Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.”

So let us choose hope through action. Let us not wait for the next election.

The Green Neighbor Challenge is powered by a team of 15 volunteers. We are a fiscally sponsored project of the Power Shift Network (501c3). To follow our work, join our mailing list or find us on social media. 

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