Energy Adviser: Program helps shrink your carbon footprint

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Conservation is a great first step toward reducing your carbon footprint. You can go even further by purchasing credits from Clark Public Utilities' Green Lights program to offset the impact of your energy use.

"For a few extra dollars a month, customers can support clean and renewable energy here in the Northwest," said Michelle Missfeldt, a key accounts manager for the utility.

Customers can opt in to pay an additional $1.50 on their electric bill for a block of Green Lights. Each block offsets 100 kilowatt-hours. The Northwest is fortunate to have access to the federal hydrosystem; nearly 60 percent of the power used in Clark County comes from renewable, reliable hydropower. Most of the rest comes from natural gas.

"Customers can sign up for as little or as much as they want, and they are not obligated for a specific amount of time," Missfeldt said.

Clark Public Utilities' Green Lights contributions are managed by the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, which supports development of renewable energy in the region and invests in school and community renewable energy educational programs right here in Clark County.

Clark Public Utilities' Green Lights program began in 2002 and the utility is required to offer this voluntary program. Businesses buy about 80 percent of the blocks sold through the program, Missfeldt said. The 73 companies enrolled in the program run the gamut, from Burgerville to US Digital to Columbia Machine. Households chip in, too, with 928 enrolled.

Combined, these utility customers buy enough credits to reach the equivalent of planting 6,096 acres of trees. To look at it another way, these customers avoid creating 30.7 million pounds of carbon dioxide because of the fossil fuel that's not being burned.

The idea of offsetting the carbon emissions of electricity consumption is abstract, Missfeldt acknowledged. But the benefits are real.

Missfeldt uses the analogy of a pool to help utility customers understand that they can't buy electrons produced by a wind farm exclusively, but they can still help the Northwest transition toward more renewable energy sources.

"You have different spigots. One puts in renewable wind-generated power, one puts in clean hydro power, and one puts in fossil fuel-generated power. Every time a customer signs up for Green Lights, the spigot with the higher carbon impact slowly turn off a little, and the wind spigot turns on a little more," she said. "It's helping the larger pool of energy needs in our region."

Money contributed by utility customers and passed along to the Bonneville Environmental Foundation has helped develop wind farms and solar arrays around the Northwest, as well as a landfill gas-fired plant in Medford, Ore, and a manure digester in Outlook.

A percentage of the money is invested here in Clark County for local renewable generating projects, such as the solar panels at the city of Vancouver's Water Resources Education Center. Green Lights also supports the popular Solar 4R Schools program, which installs and manages small solar arrays at schools. Science classes monitor the visible installations and use them in classroom studies.

Schools in the program also receive classroom instruction resources and ideas for supporting activities on renewable energy. La Center, Columbia River, Heritage, Camas and Hayes Freedom high schools, as well as the Washington State School for the Blind, all have solar arrays through the program and applications continue to be accepted.

"This is a program that benefits the environment and Clark County. The dollars donated come back to educate our students and help our schools teach about renewable energy technology," Missfeldt said. "How often can you make such an impact on the environment on an ongoing basis for the price of a cup of coffee a month?"

Energy adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to energyadviser@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.