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« Biological Patterns for Systems Control | ZEB – Shifting Power Consumption in Zero Energy Buildings »
Thursday
Oct182007

How do you buy a Green Volt?

Several readers have written to me contesting the entire idea of Green Power, and buying from the producer of choice. Electrons are Electrons they say. They all come down the same wire. It makes no sense to try to buy green power.

I assume these people are also not participants in the modern economy, and barter for all goods. Money is a way to transfer value between multiple producers of commodities more efficiently than direct trades. I don’t need to accept direct value in turnips for my work. The banking system takes this a step further. I get my dollars and put them in the bank. This allows me to write a check and send it to you. You take that check to some entirely different bank and get cash. Neither of us worries whether your dollars have the same serial numbers that I deposited in the bank.

Buying green power should work in the same way. Green producer puts volts onto the grid. I buy volts from the grid. Electronic transactions mediate these processes. Neither of us needs to worry about the quantum serial numbers on each electron.

There is an old parable about Stone Soup. An itinerate comes to town, and asks not for food, but for a pot and water to make stone soup. He places a stone in the water and begins cooking. Soon he tastes it and proclaims that it is wonderful soup, but would be better if it had some carrots. Overcome by curiosity, one of the townsfolk produces some carrots. In the same way, he soon gets some potatoes, and cabbage, and onions, and so on. All the time he extols the virtues of stone soup.

The problem is, today, the doubters are closer to correct. My power company has a portfolio that they claim is green power. They augment it with power from other sources because there is no way to temporally allocate that green power. I, as the customer, have no way of knowing if they have sold the output of a single windmill several hundred times, or if the price is sufficient to encourage adding more windmills. I am suspicious of paying a premium for green power—it may be just stone soup.

If there were markets, then I could buy green power at a higher price. There are those who would do this just as there are those who buy expensive potatoes at Whole Foods. Because of Whole Foods, there are now many more producers of organic potatoes—and no one suggests that the industrial potato farms should get a share. In the same way, honest markets would incentivize green power far better than do today’s regulated offerings.

Some people see no sense in paying higher prices for such power. Some may even argue that flying organic raspberries in by jet from Chile in February may not actually save the planet. It doesn’t matter. In that market, people have choices, and can buy in accord with their values. These purchasing decisions would be reflected directly in Alternate Power profitability (and thus in Alternative Power investment).

With green power comes some reliability issues. Perhaps I want to purchase reliability assurances from a generator consortium. Perhaps I want to store power locally to tide me over. Either way, markets will offer me solutions if we let them.

We have the technology, today, to make each choice available. We have the technology to make these choices transactive, including support for time of day or dynamic congestion pricing. Installing such technology will be cheaper by an order of magnitude or two than building out the transmission infrastructure of today under the cost recovery innovation-averse regulations of today.

And it will create a market wherein I can choose the green power I want, just as I can choose organic raspberries in February. I won’t need to justify it to a utilities commissioner or to an engineer. I’ll be able to do it because I want to. And it won’t be because I like stone soup.

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