Whenever I tell people I am going zero fossil fuels (or low fossil fuels), they ask me whether I am off the grid with solar panels. I am not (too many trees shading our house). But I have a renewable energy contract with Con Ed Solutions that certifies that my electricity is 100% wind energy. So I count my residential electricity consumption as zero carbon emissions. Other renewable energy suppliers include Green Mountain Energy and Arcadia Power.
I often hear people say “You know, the electrons in your wires are still coming from the Indian Point nuclear plant and the coal burning plants upstate, so you are not really buying renewable energy, since your utility can’t separate out wind electrons from fossil fuel electrons.”
Actually, though, I am not buying electrons, I am buying energy. And no actual electrons are being delivered to my house by O&R Utilities. They are already there.
Let me geek out on you here. First, a confession – I was a nerdy kid who was into electronics and ham radios. I nearly electrocuted myself several times before age 14. I KNOW electrons.
And the electrons in your house don’t come from the power plant. They just go back and forth in a loop between your house and the nearest utility pole transformer. That’s called alternating current. Electrons don’t actually cross through transformers, they just transfer their energy from one loop of electrons to another, changing the voltage in the process. There will be many transformers between your house and the many power plants and wind turbines out there connected to the grid, each sending their batch of electrons back and forth in a closed loop, but none of them actually sending any electrons down the line to the next loop.
It looks something like this, except there are multiple power plants (including wind) connected to multiple substations at the source. That’s what we call the electric grid.
In this picture, all your electrons go back and forth from your house to the transformer drum on the pole, which is sapping energy from the grid, but not taking any actual electrons.
So what I am buying is energy, pure, massless, non physical electro motive force, and that energy was put into the grid somewhere by a wind turbine and mixed with all the other energy moving around.
Think of it this way: my employer, Pace University, makes a direct digital deposit to my checking account twice a month to pay me. Also about twice a month I go to the ATM to get some cash. I never pause to think whether some of the twenties the ATM spits out at me actually passed through Exxon Mobil’s checking account. Even if they did, I wouldn’t be working for the fossil fuel industry. Rather, my employer made an abstract, non-physical deposit into a vast interconnected network that happens to be used by some pretty odious fossil fuel interests as well. So, too, with the 100% wind energy delivered to my house.
Which is very very different from the gas and diesel you put into your car. In that case, the physical molecules you are putting in your tank really did come from the tar sands of Alberta or the beach-tarred Gulf of Mexico, or some similar hydrocarbon wracked place on Earth.
And, if everyone insisted on 100% renewable electricity like I do . . . we’d bang up against the grid transmission limits very quickly, prices for renewable energy would skyrocket, and profit seeking electric generation companies would invest in more of it instead of building more fossil fuel plants. Which would be a good thing.