Category Archives: Profile of Organizations in Energy

Outside of public agencies, there are countless organizations–  both businesses and non-profits– that put energy at the center of their focus. This article series will serve to highlight some of the great work being done by these enterprises, and if we’re lucky they’ll allow for opportunities to speak directly with people in those organizations. 

Taking Control of Your Household Energy Mix: Renewable Energy with Clean Choice Energy

Taking up the cause of supporting renewable energy in lieu of traditional carbon-emitting fossil fuels has become increasingly popular in recent years, as people strive to do what they can to fight climate change, reduce dependence on foreign energy sources, and support localized energy resources that minimize harm to the environment. However finding something that everyday citizens can do to help the development and use of renewable energy is sometimes difficult:

But that may be changing as companies like Clean Choice Energy entering the market and providing everyday people the option to get their power from regional renewable energy sources. Clean Choice Energy allows eligible utility customers to agree to pay a little more and ensure that the electricity they are receiving is certified is renewable and does so without any extra equipment, new installations, or separate billing processes. For the energy-conscious consumer, Clean Choice Energy allows a small-scale participation in the energy transition in a very real and attainable way.

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But how does it work? Read on to learn more and read about my personal experiences with the process.



What is Clean Choice Energy?

Clean Choice Energy was founded in 2010 after Tom Matzzie (founder and CEO) wanted to install renewable energy into his home but found the process much more difficult than he thought it would be, which is a predicament Americans everywhere have encountered. The frustration of that process is what led to the birth of Clean Choice Energy. The basic concept centers around the idea that supporting new renewable energy development and continued generation costs more in the short term due to higher capital costs (while natural gas plants have installation costs of $1,000 per kilowatt of capacity, solar ranges from $2,000 to $3,700 per kilowatt and wind ranges from $1,200 to $1,700). So while in the long term, the ‘free’ nature of solar and wind to fuel the renewable energy brings the actual costs per energy generated of these projects below those of most non-renewable projects (see chart below), there exists a high upfront cost barrier to entry in the market.

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To overcome this cost barrier of renewable energy projects, Clean Choice Energy allows regular consumers to pay a little more every month to ensure that the power going into your home comes from 100% renewable sources. Giving the customer this flexibility is crucial, as power companies strive to keep their customers happy and prevent the prices from going up without cause. This goal to not raise prices, both prices for the customer and the price for the utility to generate energy, reduces the incentive for the utility to investment more in renewable power sources. While 29 states have mandatory requirements concerning the minimum amount of a utility’s portfolio that must come from renewable sources, many customers would still prefer to have more renewable energy in their personal energy mix and would even be willing to pay for that privilege. That preference is where Clean Choice Energy comes in, offering customers with the ability and desire to pay more for 100% renewable energy the option to do so. Not only do individuals who sign their household up get the satisfaction of knowing their lights and appliances are powered with solar and wind energy, but they can also be proud that their money is helping the feedback loop where more people buying renewable energy leads to more capital to invest and improve the renewable technologies which leads to more affordable renewable energy which causes more people to buy in, etc.

How does it work?

If the broad concept of buying into renewable energy sources for your household sounds appealing, then the general question of how exactly it works is the next logical step. Pretty much all possible questions are answered on Clean Choice Energy’s website, but the process is surprisingly simple and straight forward.

Getting your renewable power

When signing up with Clean Choice Energy, most locations have available both month-to-month contracts or full 12 month plans, though both can be cancelled at any point without delay or cancellation fee.

Once signed up, your household will begin to get its renewable power typically within one billing cycle, by the next meter read date. Your overall electricity and connection to the grid will not see any service interruption at all, and in fact everything on the customer’s end (wiring, equipment, billing process, utility company to contact with any issues) stays exactly the same. All that changes is that the utility will begin to get the electricity for your household from regional solar and wind resources as set up by Clean Choice Energy.

Clean Choice Energy’s standard clean plan is Green-e Energy certified, ensuring compliance with the standards put forth in Clean Choice Energy’s mission. When you get your power traditionally from the grid, it includes electricity from all the sources that utility uses– coal, nuclear, natural gas, and renewable sources. However once your household is a part of Clean Choice Energy, all your power will be accounted for from 100% regionally-based, clean, and renewable energy sources like wind and solar and not any blended products that contribute to fossil fuels or nuclear power. This end is achieved by making sure that all the energy from your meter reading is matched by Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), which is what the customer is paying a premium to obtain.

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Billing

A crucial question for anybody considering a switch to Clean Choice Energy is how much their rates and monthly bill will be affected. Unfortunately, there is not a single or simple answer. The rates charged by Clean Choice Energy change from month to month because the renewable energy (i.e., the RECs) is bought on an open market where prices and availability fluctuate. As such, your bill is not going to increase by a fixed amount or fixed percentage, rather you agree to pay for the most affordable regional clean energy source that Clean Choice Energy finds in that particular month. However if this uncertainty is not ideal, Clean Choice Energy does, in certain locations, offer a fixed-rate price plan that you can discuss with them.

Once the next meter read date passes and you are officially getting renewable power via Clean Choice Energy, you will still continue to receive your only electric bill from the same utility. The only difference will be that ‘CleanChoice Energy’ will show up on that bill as your electricity supplier.

Availability

Because Clean Choice Energy is only available where it has specific agreements set up with the area’s utility, it is not an option everywhere in the United States. Currently, Clean Choice Energy serves both residential and commercial customers in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. However they are also continuing their expansion efforts and expect to enter into Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Texas in the future. Being in these states, though, is not all that is required, as you also must be a customer of the specific utilities in those states with which Clean Choice Energy has agreements. These applicable utilities can be found here.

My experience and review

Process of joining

One of Clean Choice Energy’s most significant and important claims is just how simple it is to sign up and start getting your renewable energy– no installation, no equipment, no headaches. To this claim, I can attest to its truth. I got a letter in the mail advertising that my apartment was eligible to switch, I went to the link I was provided, and within minutes I had completed my process of switching to 100% renewable energy. It actually was that easy!

Shortly after that, I received a welcome envelope in the mail, laid out and shown below, which came with a welcome letter, a sticker, a list of customer rights & responsibilities, and a detailed explanation about the type of power I was to receive.

After that, though, the required correspondence  with Clean Choice Energy was complete. At that point, everything was done through my existing power company, just as advertised. The next full bill I received from my utility (relevant excerpt shown below) replaced the utility’s supply charges with ‘CleanChoice supply charges.’ Again, the price change is variable and depends on your region– but for the below consecutive months from right before and right after I joined Clean Choice Energy, the price per kilowatt-hour (kWh) (with 383 kWh used in the last month before Clean Choice Energy and 617 kWh used in the first month with Clean Choice Energy and the first month all year I had used my heater) went up by 33%, while the distribution charges remain unaffected:

While that price hike is certainly enough to prevent some people from making the switch, I personally view it as a small token towards ‘walking the walk’ with respect towards supporting renewable energy, especially given the impact that doing so has.

Impact

In terms of what the impact of your switching to 100% renewable energy is, that entirely depends on your utility’s existing energy mix and your power usage. However Clean Choice Energy does provide a tool to look at the impact of your personal switch. Here’s the tally from my November electricity usage through Clean Choice Energy:

After using 241 kWh with Clean Choice Energy’s 100% renewable sources, my switch for that month accounted for 370 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions averted (the equivalent of planting 4.3 trees) and 178 pounds of coal not burned. Not only that, but Clean Choice Energy also keeps a running tracker of the impact of all Clean Choice Energy customers– with this screenshot taken as of December 29th, 2017:

In addition to the direct and measurable impact of switching to renewable energy, customers can also be confident that they are helping to invest in renewable energy sources in their local regions, which will hopefully help them become more affordable, profitable, and expansive. On a micro-level, I have also found that the decision to switch to Clean Choice Energy, and the higher electricity prices that come with it, has helped encourage me to reduce my own energy use. Whether that means turning off the lights more often or waiting until I have a full load in the washing machine before running it, the higher cost per kWh is incentive to reduce personal energy usage.

Conclusion

I’ve been a customer with Clean Choice Energy for over a year now, even making sure to transfer it to a new building when I moved apartments. If that’s not endorsement, then I don’t know what is! But again, more than being simple to do, using Clean Choice Energy serves as a token towards a better and greener energy future. While wind and solar power have grown a great deal recently (up to a combined 115 gigawatts of capacity in 2017 from just 17 gigawatts in 2007), renewable energy still accounts for less than 17% of total U.S. Power generation according to the Energy Information Administration. Investment and buy-in from customers that were unreachable before a program like Clean Choice Energy will be one of the driving forces to make renewable energy an even stronger force in the utility market than it already is.

How do you get started?

If reading all this is enough to get you interested, there are a couple of ways you can get started. First, make sure the specific utility in your state is included in Clean Choice Energy’s available partners. If it looks available to you, you can use this link to sign up (full disclosure: that is my personal referral link, and if you sign up using it then both you and I receive a $25 Visa gift card; if you prefer a non-referral link, then click here to sign up). You can also call them directly at 1-800-460-4900 to start the sign up process. If it turns out Clean Choice Energy is not option for you, call up your utility. There’s always a chance they have an internal program with similar goals, and if not then use your voice to let them know you want greener and cleaner energy!

Sources and additional reading

Barriers to Renewable Energy Technologies: Union of Concerned Scientists

Clean Choice Energy

Google, Apple, Facebook Race Towards 100% Renewable Energy Target: The Guardian

How Corporations ‘Bypassed the Politics’ to Lead on Clean Energy in 2017: Green Tech Media

Power plants’ costs and value to the grid are not easily reflected using simple metrics: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Renewable Energy Certificates: Environmental Protection Agency

Short-Term Energy Outlook: Energy Information Administration

State Renewable Portfolio Standards and Goals: National Conference of State Legislatures

Sunshine State lags on solar power, doubles down on natural gas: USA Today

The Bottom Line on Electric Cars: They are Cheaper to Own: Forbes

What Good is the Electric Car if Nobody Can Afford It? Cheap Electric Cars on the Horizon: Steemit

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.  

The altE Store: Providing Solar Powered Disaster Relief in Puerto Rico

During times of disaster and tragedy, a quote from Fred Rogers (who you probably know better as Mr. Rogers of the eponymous children’s television show) often circulates to show the power of people banding together in difficult times.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words an I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in the world.’

Among the ‘scary things’ that hit the world recently were the series of hurricanes that hit the Caribbean and southeast United States. While there are countless examples of helpers during these hurricanes, one story came to my attention recently that merged the helpers with the world of energy. When Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico in early September, more than 1 million power outages were reported across the island. Less than a month later, Hurricane Maria hit the island (before power was able to be fully restored from the first storm) and left Puerto Island almost entirely without electricity.



While reading about this humanitarian crisis, I learned of a company, the altE Store, that was using its abilities and expertise in solar power to help design and implement affordable solar powered energy solutions in the impoverished regions of Puerto Rico. These areas were the ones that were likely be lower on the list of priorities regions for the utilities to restore power, and thus the ones that could use a helping hand the most in such a turbulent time.

When I heard about this project, two things came to mind. The first thought was how right Fred Rogers was about looking for the best in humanity who go out of their way to help when disaster strikes. The second was that I wanted to learn more about the organization behind these efforts. So I reached out to them and was able to speak with Amy Beaudet, self-described Solar Queen at the altE Store to learn about the company, their charitable and humanitarian efforts, and the future of solar power.

About the altE Store

The altE Store, or the Alternative Energy Store, was founded in 1999 to sell off-grid solar systems to people in remote locations (think islands off the coast of Maine). The altE Store has evolved with the ever-changing solar industry, growing to also provide systems that are tied into the grid, systems that are tied to the grid but also have on-site storage (see: microgrids), as well as systems that exist completely separate from the grid. The altE Store exists as a completely web-based enterprise with no physical locations. Because of this, they have been able to establish a global reach, having done business in all seven continents.

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As a customer of the altE Store, you have lots of options at your fingertips. Any piece of equipment that you might need for your solar system is sold at the altE Store, including solar panels, racking, inverters, charge controllers, batteries, breaker boxes, PV wire, and more. You can purchase pre-designed systems in one package with a schematic on how to put it together, or you can have a design custom made for you. Lastly, you can purchase the solar equipment and install it all yourself, or you can have professionals come and assist in the installation as well. Through it all, the altE Store strives to provide flexibility to its customers, making headway towards their goal of “making renewable do-able.”

Education and outreach

Recognizing the value of having an educated customer base, the altE Store has been creating informative videos on solar power and solar systems for 10 years and has shifted even more focus into this side of the business in the past several years. The results have been pretty staggering, with viewers in over 200 different countries and extensive questions and requests frequently brought in the comment sections. Their goal has been to make sure accurate information is available for people getting started in solar power, curious potential customers, do-it-yourself enthusiasts, and anyone else interested in solar power– including technical information, product overviews, solar installation processes, and more. Engaging with these videos and blog posts ensures customers have a trusted and friendly face they can turn to with their solar needs, and spreading the message about the renewable energy source only helps the spread of the emerging technologies.

Response to Puerto Rico

The altE Store’s mission statement reads “Empowering the world one person at a time by providing renewable energy products, services and education.” That’s not just a lofty goal to them, though, and the situation in Puerto Rico that brought the altE Store to my attention demonstrates just that.

As the devastation from Hurricane Maria unfolded and many, including the people at the altE Store, watched from television and computer screens thousands of miles away and yearned to find something they could do to help. The team at the altE Store got in touch with a solar instructor who had worked with the company in the past and was working with a group in New York City looking to help in Puerto Rico as well. The New York City group was looking to send solar equipment to Puerto Rico, along with teams of people to install them, to help bring a source of immediate power to those who were looking at being left in the dark for weeks, if not months. Given the altE Store’s mission to bring renewable power where it is needed, this looked like a perfect opportunity for them to get involved.

Not only was this a great fit for the altE Store to get involved in the Puerto Rico recovery efforts, but that involvement happened at a pretty breakneck speed– for which the beneficiaries in Puerto Rico are surely grateful. Hurricane Maria made its way through Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. It took a few days to truly understand the toll the storm took on Puerto Rico, and specifically the electrical system. The altE Store’s representatives first talked to the New York City group on Monday October 2. By Friday night, 2,000 pounds of equipment (inverters, charge controllers, and batteries) had been picked up from the altE Store facilities. This literal ton of equipment, which the altE Store provided at a heavily discounted price and at their own cost to provide, was combined with equipment donated from other sources. By Monday October 9, teams of solar technicians with the New York City group were on the ground ready to install the equipment that was en route to Puerto Rico. Not only that, but altE Store provided design work and schematics for the technicians to follow to install the equipment completely free. All of this work happened within just a few weeks of Hurricane Maria, and for absolutely no profit to the altE Store.

With regard to the equipment and teams sent down, their focused priority are where the most good can be done. This means getting power and light to central locations, like community centers and schools, so people can come to recharge their phones, radios, and lights, in addition to battery chainsaws needed to clear debris from roads. Additionally, locations integral to the sick and elderly, such as hospitals, are receiving solar power systems for cooling, medicine refrigeration, and the like. One interesting tidbit is that the word has been getting to the altE Store that the houses in Puerto Rico that already had solar panels installed in them are the ones that ended up keeping their roofs, while those without solar were more likely to lose their roofs. While this is anecdotal and might simply indicate that those who could afford solar also could afford more strongly reinforced buildings, it does provide a counterpoint to arguments that solar panels are no optimal for roofs within hurricane zones.

Despite the swiftness with which these great groups were able to react to get equipment and teams of technicians in place to install it, make no mistake that this will be a very long rebuilding process. Many homes need to be rebuilt before solar systems can be installed, and beyond that there are still only so many people on the ground to install the equipment that it will take time. But that is why it is great that groups like these are going down to service the more needing locations with solar power while the utilities in Puerto Rico work to rebuild the existing grid system. Through it all, the hope is that in the end the electrical system will come out of it all more resilient, cleaner, and more affordable. Much has been made about the dire state the grid system of Puerto Rico was before Hurricane Maria, so the silver lining on this whole situation could be the replacement of that old and ineffective system.

In addition to this specific partnership with the New York City group, the altE Store has also been working to find and collaborate with other groups for the same sort of relief effort in Puerto Rico, offering free design and expertise to go along with heavily discounted equipment in order to provide for those who would otherwise be stuck without power.

Other efforts

There is no shortage of opportunities for responsible companies, particularly in the energy business, to get involved in efforts to help out. In addition to the ongoing efforts in Puerto Rico, the altE Store got involved with the International Rescue Group to deliver emergency supplies to Haiti after Hurricane Matthew, specifically to build portable solar generators to charge cell phones of emergency responders, volunteers, and citizens. They even wrote and published for free do-it-yourself instructions for anyone to create their own solar generators for emergencies, preparation, or just as a self-education project.

For the areas of the United States outside of Puerto Rico that were hit by one of the several hurricanes, the altE Store is providing discounts to help them build or rebuild their solar systems to ensure their own power resilience. At 15 percent, this discount represents their biggest discount they’ve ever offered and they are stocking up their inventory to record levels to account for this influx of demand.

 Lastly, the altE Store regularly donates or discounts solar equipment to worthy causes (schools, Boy Scouts troops, etc.). They shrewdly recognize the value in educating the public, creating excitement about the technology, and demonstrating how accessible it can be. On top of that, showing the potential of solar power and sharing it with people who need it the most in times of crisis is simply the right thing to do.

Keeping updated on this story

In addition to the previously mentioned blog posts and videos that the altE Store provides on its website, there are several social media outlets where you can hear updates on the Puerto Rico project as well as everything else the altE Store is doing.

The altE Store’s Facebook pageTwitter account, and Instagram page all provide regular updates on its projects. Additionally, you can sign up for the altE Newsletter through a link on their webpage. If you have any specific questions about this work or if you simply want to get in touch with the altE Store yourself, you can also reach out directly to Amy Beaudet at amy@altestore.com.

Conclusion

In the end, the altE Store is a company who is in the business of selling solar systems to renewable-energy-seeking customers. They have many competitors in this market, they’re surely keeping an eye on government regulation of the solar industry, and they operate as any other business. But through their educational outreach and their desire to provide solar powered relief in the face of natural disasters show that they are also a forward-thinking energy organization who recognize the value of doing good in addition to doing good business. The altE Store should be commended for these efforts, and any other organization in the industry can take a page out of their book for how to use their influence for the common good.

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.