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Tilting at Windmills

You probably got yours in the mail last month: “New Choices for ‘Green’ Energy” touted the headline of the advertisement Niagara Mohawk tucked into your September utility bill. The company’s pitch for its Renewable Energy Program claimed that by paying a monthly surcharge of between $3.75 and $7.50, “you can have all or part of your electricity generated from renewable resources,” resources “produced in New York State.”

Reading NiMo’s prose, I had visions of windmills and solar cells sprouting like mushrooms over the countryside. Could it be that New York would soon have an economy built upon renewable energy? But wait a minute. As I read over the text, the image of my high school business-law teacher loomed above my fantasy repeating a simple Latin phrase: Caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware. I decided to look further into this NiMo program.

Since January, NiMo has been owned by a multinational corporation, based in Great Britain, called National Grid. This British company has acquired electricity transmission and distribution systems in New England and New York, as well as back in the company’s homeland. Provision of this renewable-energy program was part of the corporate merger deal approved by the New York State Public Service Commission, the arm of state government responsible for utility regulation.

NiMo (National Grid) provides the transmission lines and other technology needed to get electricity from where it is generated to your home. Its main business interest is to move electricity around, not generate it. The electricity it transmits can be from energy facilities located anywhere along the massive North American electrical grid. The electrons that form the current you use may have entered this grid from dozens of source plants employing a range of fuels. The electricity NiMo sells is 33 percent nuclear, 33 percent hydroelectric, 17 percent natural gas, 10 percent coal, 5 percent oil, 1 percent biomass, less than 1 percent wind and 0 percent solar, according to another recent bill insert. This mix is in continuous flux as plants go on- and off-line, and energy deals are brokered across the grid.

While NiMo makes it sound like you’ll get energy directly from wind, biomass and hydroelectric generation if you join their program, you will still get the same mix of fuel sources as everyone else, only pay more for it. There is no way to direct only renewable energy to your home, unless you generate it yourself and go off the grid. If large numbers of NiMo customers bought into this program, the relative percentages of the fuel mix producing the electricity might produce noticeable change, but under the weight of an immense consumer tax.

Similarly, NiMo’s claim that this renewable energy “is produced in New York State” is hard to substantiate. When I called Sterling Planet, one of three companies promoted in the program, its salesperson (who was in Ohio) could not say that the renewable energy the company offers would be produced only in New York. According to the salesperson, Sterling Planet doesn’t even own generating facilities in New York but operates as a middleman for other energy producers.

Community Energy, Inc. was founded just three years ago. It has developed a number of wind-farm projects and is currently working closely with Exelon Power Team. Interestingly, Exelon Power Team is the marketing division of Chicago-based Exelon Generation Co., which claims to be “the largest nuclear operator in the U.S.” Exelon also operates fossil-fuel-fed plants that certainly don’t help clean the air.

Green Mountain Energy, a Texas-based company, was formed in 1997 and has been involved in a number of solar projects in Texas, California, Ohio, Connecticut, New Jersey, Oregon and Pennsylvania. A major backer of this company is Sam Wyly, a megabucks fundraiser for George W. Noted polluters backing the company included British Petroleum and Amoco. The company’s corporate parenthood is linked to Green Mountain Power Corporation, a part owner of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant that also purchases much of its electricity from the massive, environmentally destructive Hydro-Quebec dams in Canada. In California, Green Mountain Energy apparently ditched customers during the recent energy crisis in the state. Californians who paid higher rates to have the company build in-state solar and wind facilities were later informed that they would have to find other electricity sources when Green Mountain found the fiscal environment too risky.

Formed in 2001, Sterling Planet is a recent entry into the deregulated energy market. It has a Texas connection, with Austin Energy, a municipally owned utility that purchases wind-generated energy and also is part-owner of a coal plant and a nuclear facility in Texas. Sterling Planet portrays itself on its Internet site as “utility veterans” and reassures utilities, “. . . you can rest assured: We don’t compete—and never will—with utilities, so we won’t lure customers away. . . .” In their short span of operations, the folks at Sterling Planet don’t have much to show for themselves, except that they are determined to never compete with utilities and prefer to operate as an energy middleman.

Well, this information was enough to convince me to pass on NiMo’s “green” offer. I decided that instead of paying an extra $90 a year for electricity, I could put those dollars to better use increasing the efficiency of my energy use with additional insulated window shades, a few more high-efficiency light bulbs and some weather stripping. I’m also not concerned about deciding against supporting this renewable energy effort in New York, since we all pay a System Benefits charge listed on our utility bills that’s already supposed to support its development.

—Tom Nattell

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