Demand for carbon-free energy is starting to influence how electricity is produced in Washington state.
In about two years, corporate and government clients of a Western Washington utility will be able to buy 100 percent of their electricity from new, renewable energy projects.
Puget Sound Energy’s program is the first of its kind in the state. Customers who sign up for the voluntary program will pay more for the all-renewable electricity from the Bellevue-based utility, but they’ll be able to track their kilowatt consumption back to specific wind farms or solar installations.
“They wanted something that was cost-effective. They also wanted to be able to point to a new solar farm, or a new wind farm, and say, ‘That was built because of our commitment,’” said Tom MacLean, manager of customer renewable energy programs for Puget Sound Energy, which serves about 1.1 million electric customers.
Outdoor retailer REI, which has 11 Washington stores, was among the first utility customers to approach Puget Sound Energy, MacLean said. The utility has also heard from Target, Walmart and other members of the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, which formed with the help of the World Wildlife Fund and World Resources Institute to assist large corporations with affordable ways to reduce their carbon footprint.
More than 60 companies are part of the alliance, representing hundreds of megawatts of new demand for renewable energy, according to World Resources Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based group.
Like other Northwest utilities, Puget Sound Energy gets part of its electricity from hydropower dams and wind generation, MacLean said. But the utility also has coal- and natural gas-fired electric plants.
Initially, Puget Sound Energy will limit the program to 75 megawatts of electricity. That represents the average output of two large wind farms, MacLean said. A large grocery store uses about one-half of a megawatt of electricity, so a company with 10 stores would require about 5 megawatts, he said.
The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission approved the program in late September. State oversight helps insure that program costs don’t get shifted onto other utility customers, said Jeremy Twitchell, the UTC’s energy policy adviser.
Puget Sound Energy is starting to market the new program to prospective customers, including local and state governments. But since the construction of new wind farms is required, the program’s roll-out is about two years away, MacLean said.
Participating companies will sign 10- to 20-year contracts for the all-renewable energy, which helps give them price certainty, he said.
Avista Corp. is also assessing customers’ interest in renewable energy, said Mary Tyrie, a company spokeswoman.
About 1 percent of the Spokane-based utility’s electric customers participate in the Buck A Block program.
Customers who opt in pay an extra $1 for 300 kilowatt blocks of electricity. Avista uses the extra money to purchase renewable energy credits, primarily from wind farms, said Chris Drake, Avista’s energy efficiency manager. The credits offset electricity in Avista’s portfolio generated from burning fossil fuels.
Puget Sound Energy also offers the purchase of renewable energy credits to its residential and commercial customers, MacLean said. Though they have similar goals, the new program better fits the needs of large, corporate customers, he said.
Corporate clients will be able to tout their participation in specific projects that help reduce the nation’s carbon emissions.
“The companies can say, ‘Those wind turbines, or those solar panels, are our project. They were built for us,’” said Twitchell, the energy policy adviser.
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