Environmentally-conscious consumers in the United States have a variety of ways to purchase green energy. This post offers more detail on how companies generate and deliver wind and solar energy either directly to consumers or to regional utilities. Changes to energy regulations have had an impact on the market for electricity from renewable sources and may continue to do so. Various forms of renewable energy co-op have evolved over the years. Most of those power coops generate energy using solar panels or wind turbines.
Energy Regulation and Deregulation:
However, the Solar Energy Industry Association argues that deregulation could be good news for consumers who want to buy renewable energy for several reasons. Consumers could begin to drive demand for solar and wind energy by offering to pay more for it. The federal government could create nationwide rules that require power companies to supply X% of their electricity using renewable sources. The utilities could choose to operate their own renewable power divisions, to set up cooperatives, or something else.
Changes to energy regulations at the state and federal level have certainly had some impact on the availability of renewable energy. Deregulation in the utility industry is a complex subject, even as it concerns renewable energy. So far, electric utility regulations probably have made it easier for various companies have set up indirect and direct schemes for delivering renewable energy.
Direct and Indirect Suppliers:
Some power companies sell electricity from wind or solar generators direct to consumers, but more companies deliver power from third parties. The Department of Energy states that at least 50% of consumers in the United States have the option to purchase renewable energy, either directly or through the local utility company.
Some companies also sell green energy certificates, sometimes called renewable energy certificates. This is possible because many utilities generate energy and deliver power to customers.
Those companies can easily purchase some of their energy from third-parties, like community solar companies or wind farms, and sell it to consumers who wish to get some of their electricity from "green" sources. Companies, coops, and economic development programs have spawned a range of renewable energy cooperatives over the past couple of decades. Solar power cooperatives are one example.
In many states, individual consumers and small business owners can take advantage of incentives to install solar panels or small wind turbines to generate some of their own energy. The utility company may be able to buy excess power back from these home producers, who may also be required to sell their excess power back to the utility company. Power companies often act strictly as suppliers of renewable energy from diverse source, like solar and wind energy installations operated by renewable energy cooperatives.
Renewable Energy Certificates (REC):
Buyers can buy the benefits of green energy without buying wind or solar power from their utility company or a third party. Some power generating companies sell green certificates, sometimes called Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) or green tags. In the words of the EPA, a REC is a "…market-based instrument that represents the property rights to the environmental, social, and other non-power attributes of renewable electricity generation. In practice, a REC represents one megawatt hour of renewable energy produced and delivered to the electrical grid.
Because the electricity that comes from a utility company to a consumer is the same regardless of source, there needs to be an instrument to show how much renewable energy a green utility company produced on behalf of the consumer.
You can purchase RECs and support green energy even if your own utility company does not offer energy from a renewable source. This investment drives the growth of the renewable energy industry and offers some direct benefits for the buyer. RECs enable a small business to claim it is 100% powered by renewable energy even if the local power company only uses coal to generate power. Individual consumers can also buy energy directly from renewable energy companies in several ways.
Community Solar Power:
Cooperatives for buyers or sellers are probably as old as commerce itself. In the renewable energy sector, cooperatives for generating or buying power have caught on around the country. Community solar is one example of the rise of the renewable energy coop. Local businesses, nonprofits, and governments team up with individuals to create a variety of power cooperatives. Many of those programs focus on community solar power. The "community" in community solar comes that collective move to buy electricity from a renewable source. It could be considered a buyer co-op for renewable energy, because each customer buys into the community solar project in return for getting some of the energy. Most community solar projects are local efforts, as the name suggests. At least one community solar program, run by Arcadia Power, is nationwide; everyone in areas they serve can buy a share of solar power.
In New York, a group called NY Sun promotes community solar by providing resources and technical advice to local governments, businesses, and individuals. NY Sun is a public private partnership comprised of New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), Long Island Power Authority, PSEG Long Island and the New York Power Authority.
Most states do something to promote renewable energy use by individuals and businesses. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, there are community solar programs in 25 states. Many states have other renewable energy programs focused on encouraging wind or biomass.