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In our view: Greener pastures

Gas from cows? Solar power? Local consumers can buy it now

The Columbian
Published: July 6, 2010, 12:00am

When is it a good idea to pay more for the same service provided to your neighbors? We can think of two local examples: natural gas and electricity.

NW Natural, a Portland-based utility, recently expanded its Smart Energy program to its 60,000 Southwest Washington customers. Clark Public Utilities has offered its Green Lights program since 2002. Both programs allow customers to opt in, paying slightly more for their energy and in return funding development of more environmentally friendly energy sources.

The key phrase here is “opt in.” Those consumers who are more concerned about the amount of the bill than the source of the energy are free to burn gas from Canada or tap hydroelectricity from the Columbia River.

In fact, most do.

But consider the possibilities unlocked by a few extra dollars. NW Natural’s Smart Energy program costs an extra $6 per month, which the gas company uses to buy greenhouse gas emission offsets. The Climate Trust, a Portland-based nonprofit, funds methane gas collection projects at dairy farms. Each cow on a farm produces 120 pounds of manure per day — or a total of 14 million pounds in Oregon alone.

The methane from those mountains of manure would otherwise enter the atmosphere and contribute to the greenhouse gas problem.

About 70 percent of the money collected from the Smart Energy program goes directly into biogas collection, with the rest being spent on overhead. Since the program started in Oregon in 2007, NW Natural customers have offset more than 50,000 tons of carbon dioxide, according to the company.

Clark Public Utilities began offering its Green Lights program four years before state voters approved Initiative 937, which requires utilities to provide 15 percent of their power from green sources by 2020. A typical home uses 1,200 kilowatt-hours per month, so going completely green would cost $18 more. But it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. The green power is sold in 100 kilowatt-hour blocks, with each block costing only $1.50.

Clark sends the money to the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, which pools it with other “green tag” programs around the Northwest to invest in renewable forms of energy. Only about 1,100 of Clark’s 180,000 customers have invested in the program so far, but even that small number represents a $350,000 annual contribution to better sources of energy.

One of the first investments targeted was wind power. But with that market well-established — and now economically feasible — the foundation is moving on to fund more solar and geothermal projects. Clark’s projects include wind farms and three solar projects, including a demonstration solar project in cloudy Clark County.

Both consumers and businesses have bought into Green Lights. “We see it as a way of contributing to our community in a powerful way, in a leadership role,” Jack Graves, Burgerville’s chief cultural officer, said in an interview earlier this year. “One of the reasons (people) will buy burgers at Burgerville rather than someplace else is because we support the local environment.”

Of course, these programs aren’t the only way to act responsibly toward the environment. Replace the incandescent light bulbs in your house with energy-sipping compact fluorescents. Lower the temperature on your water heater. Invest in some new weather stripping. You save money in the long run, too.

There are many ways to follow a better energy diet. These programs from NW Natural and Clark Public Utilities add more greens to our menu.