Green power purchases trend upward

Last year I used no green power. Not a single kilowatt from a solar panel, biogas plant, wind turbine or hydropower operation.

So what, right?

That might be changing. No, I'm not putting solar on my roof. Too expensive. I've done the standard home efficiency upgrades -- insulation, windows, doors, new 95 percent efficient furnace. But that's another story.

Regular consumers like myself may soon be taking a cue from companies like Intel Corp., Kohl's Department Stores, Whole Foods Market and Starbucks and buying green power. The four companies are ranked as the best performers on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Top 50 list of green power purchasers.

No. 1 Intel, which retained its top spot from last year, has purchased a phenomenal 2.5 billion kilowatt hours of green power for 88 percent of its energy needs. The sources for this power were biomass, geothermal, small hydro, solar and wind.

No. 2 Kohl's has purchased 1.4 billion kWh of biomass, small hydro, solar and wind for all -- that's right, 100 percent -- of its energy needs.

Starbucks made a big jump over the past year to the No. 4 spot. Last year, it was No. 16. Whole Foods moved up a notch to No. 3, pushing out January 2010's third-place finisher PepsiCo. PepsiCo dropped off the list.

Usually green energy is purchased by paying extra for energy from wind power, hydro or solar. Those power purchases can be through utilities, brokers that specialize in green power or green power producers themselves. These purchases can be a little speculative as all energy is equal once it hits the grid, but the concept is sound.

Some green power users are self generators. The top three on the EPA list all include on-site generation.
"Generating our own green power in combination with purchased green power helps us to lessen our environmental footprint and become more sustainable," said Fisk Johnson, SC Johnson Chairman and CEO, in a statement. "As a fifth generation family company, it is part of our DNA. We are committed to doing what's right for our consumers, communities and our planet. Supporting clean sources of energy is a 'win-win' for everyone."

SC Johnson, the privately held maker of products like Windex and Glade, produced 25.5 million kWh of its own electricity, or 13 percent of its total, through biogas. The company built its first landfill-gas cogeneration turbine in Racine, Wis. to provide power for its largest factory, which is 2.2 million square feet.

EPA's on-site producers list is topped by Kimberly-Clark Corp., which produces 176.5 million kWh through biomass. No. 2 on the list is the City of San Diego, which produces 69 million kWh through solar, biogas and hydropower.

An interesting on-site listing is No. 18 Zotos International, which derived 60 percent of its power, the highest percentage among the Top 20, for 6.5 million kWh through two on-site wind turbines. Zotos, based in Darien, Conn., makes hair care products and wants to boost green power purchases to 100 percent of consumption by 2012.

Said Anthony Perdigao, Zotos chief sustainability officer, in a statement: "Generating green power helps our organization become more sustainable, while also sending a message to others across the U.S. that supporting clean sources of electricity is a sound business decision and an important choice in reducing climate risk."

Companies appear to be getting the message. Intel's purchases nearly doubled from two years ago, and the rest of the top purchasers increased their green power significantly from 2009.

California's Global Warming Solutions Act sets a rather lofty target of the state getting a third of its energy from renewables by 2020. The law has spurred growth in renewable power production and facilities construction. However, if the trend of corporate green power purchases continues, that goal may indeed be reachable.

With demand comes increased supply, lower prices for green power and opportunity for the sector in general.

Maybe we'll all be checking a box on our utility bill that says "green power" and pay a nominal fee. Or, better yet, no fee at all.

Wiring up green energy ain't easy

Europe and the United States see quite a bit of potential in green energy.

Yet, problems arise immediately. Renewables are expensive and often in remote spots far from existing power lines.

Take offshore wind power generation.

The North Sea, East Coast and other sites offer phenomenally blustery conditions but huge challenges. Those difficulties raise the question of how to get that power safely and efficiently to market without putting the price per kilowatt out of reach?

The same holds true for wave-generating devices, Mojave solar panels or geothermal sites. They're out in the middle of nowhere, relatively speaking. Reminds me of the random efforts over the past 50 years to build a dam on the Yukon River up in Alaska. Not only is that crazy from an environmental perspective, but who the heck would use the power? Bears? Yet, there were some proponents who continually brought it up.

In the Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research report "Electricity Transmission Infrastructure," out earlier this year, officials wrote: "In order to reap the full benefits of renewable energy and smart grid technologies, the capacity and information-carrying ability of transmission systems must be increased substantially."

Not a simple task.

Stringing cable across any sea floor is difficult and expensive but not prohibitive. Google plans to spend billions on the Atlantic Wind Connection, which will rest 15 to 20 miles offshore and run from New Jersey to Virginia, and just reported that ministers from 10 European nations have agreed on construction of a new offshore electricity grid.

Meanwhile, companies are increasing their purchase of "green" energy. For instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently recognized Starbucks for doubling its green power purchase, increasing its ranking to No. 4 on EPA’s National Top 50 list of the largest green power purchasers.

Starbucks green power purchases amount to more than 573 million kilowatt-hours annually, or about 55 percent of the organization's electricity use, EPA said. The EPA's top 50 is headed up by Intel at No. 1, Kohl's at No. 2 and Whole Foods at No. 3.

The desire is there. What it means and the debate over where it's going gives my colleague Sanford Nax and I something to contemplate. We don't really have much of an idea, but work to keep our outlook positive as we discuss the future of green energy.

Pike predicts the domestic power transmission market will grow by 3.5 percent over the next five years and by a compound annual growth rate of 1.5 percent internationally over the next decade. Renewables and capacity and reliability enhancements are among the drivers of the move, researchers said.

As evidenced by the deal by Europe, much depends on government involvement. The United Kingdom, Ireland, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden and signed a memorandum of understanding for the new offshore grid that would connect a 140 gigawatt offshore wind farm planned for the North Sea to grids on land.

In this country, the U.S. Department of Energy has launched a big push to help jump start the effort of offshore power. I wrote this fall that DOE's embrace is a big step for a neglected resource many believe has the potential to supply a serious percentage of this nation's electricity demand.

Perhaps the role of government is to ease the regulatory process somewhat and let the private sector see what floats, or doesn't. At the SJVCEO, we believe the San Joaquin Valley perfectly positioned to capitalize on clean energy in its many guises, and we'd certainly love to see rapid development in all green sectors.