In recent months, area residents have gotten mailers like this one from FirstEnergy Solutions: "Save up to $275 and lock in the lowest electric generation price."
Such offers follow electricity deregulation in the state, which lets consumers choose who supplies their power. Outfits like FirstEnergy compete with utilities like Duquesne Light, mostly on price. So far, more than 1 million Pennsylvanians have switched suppliers.
But while competing suppliers seldom mention it, deregulation also lets you choose how your electricity is generated. And the cheapest options might be the worst for the environment.
In Southwestern Pennsylvania, most electricity comes from coal, whose mining and burning scar the land, poison the water and lace the air with mercury, soot and more -- including about 40 percent of all emissions of carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas. Pennsylvania's aging coal-fired plants are among the nation's dirtiest.
The greenest path, of course, is to simply use less electricity. But when you do power up, your best bets environmentally are renewable sources, especially wind and solar.
Right now, renewables contribute only a few percent of U.S. energy. Still, there are choices. Do you want all your power from wind, or is 20 percent from a mix of renewables sufficient? Should it all be generated regionally, or is wind from, say, Texas, acceptable? And should you buy directly, or through "renewable energy credits"?
To compare supplier prices, see the state Public Utility Commission chart at www.papowerswitch.com. Duquesne Light's current price is 8.89 cents per kilowatt-hour. By comparison, FirstEnergy, for instance, is offering 7.19 cents per kWh. For the average household using 600 kWh a month, that would total $43.14 for generation and transmission, compared to $53.34 for Duquesne Light.
But what's behind your outlet? Thanks to a state law requiring that Pennsylvania generate 20 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020, all power companies use some renewables. But coal still supplies about three-fourths of electricity regionally, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And environmentalists decry the pollution from coal-fired plants like FirstEnergy's Bruce Mansfield Power Station, in Shippingport.
The renewable-energy options PUC lists for Duquesne Light customers are typically more expensive -- but not necessarily by much. Connecticut-based Viridian Energy, for instance, sells electricity from 20 percent renewable sources for 7.99 cents per kWh -- more than FirstEnergy, but less than Duquesne Light. Viridian's 100 percent wind-generated package, meanwhile, costs a variable rate currently pegged at 9.49 per kWh -- on average, just $3.60 a month more than Duquesne Light.
Not all such suppliers own power plants or wind farms; many repackage power other firms generate. So environmental group PennFuture (www.pennfuture.org) offers a chart telling where suppliers get their electrons. Some are sourced nationally, others regionally or even strictly in Pennsylvania.
Then there are renewable-energy credits. An REC is created each time a supplier delivers one megawatt-hour of renewable energy to the grid. Companies like Viridian re-sell energy directly to consumers; others sell RECs; some firms sell both. RECs can even be sold as an "add-on": You keep your old supplier but pay a surcharge. Radnor, Pa.-based Community Energy, charges an extra 2.5 cents per kWh to buy RECs (adding $15 to the average monthly bill).
All electricity flows into the same grid; electrons aren't tagged "coal-fired" or "wind-generated." But buying renewables, even RECs, does ultimately displace fossil-fuel consumption. A decade ago, there were few wind farms. But revenue from wind-power credits bought by institutions including Carnegie Mellon University "just really kick-started" the industry, says Community Energy vice-president Jay Carlis. Now Pennsylvania alone has 16 wind farms, and more in the works.
All electrical generation affects the environment. Coal's impacts are likely the worst, but even wind farms kill birds and disrupt the landscape. The greenest kilowatt remains the one you don't burn; it's also the cheapest.
But what to buy? Wind energy is more developed than solar, and it's arguably greener than everything else. And PennFuture encourages buying locally, to clean up Pennsylvania's energy supply.
By those criteria, Viridian's Pure Green Plan (with 100 percent regionally supplied wind power) might be the greenest option available to Duquesne Light customers.
But with any renewables plan, says PennFuture senior policy analyst Courtney Lane, "You're making the choice to invest in green versus dirty."