Friday, December 4, 2015

Can we afford to live sustainably? The case for carbon fees

Because of the Northwest Jobfest, I haven't had time to post for over a month, but now that it's over and was a huge success, I have time to write (and breathe) again. 

A year ago, we sent you "Green Christmas" greetings and shared  that we had "greened" our lifestyle by installing solar panels and a gray water system, purchasing a plug-in hybrid Chevet Volt, and replacing our lawn with decomposed granite, mulch and a drip watering system. This seems like a good time to evaluate this experiment. 

I have also been inspired by a presentation given by Devorah Brous at ICUJP this Friday morning. Devorah is the executive director of Netiya, a group that does interfaith gardens and advocates for food justice. Devorah and I are kindred spirits who have been made similar efforts to green our homes and grow fruits and vegetables. She and her husband even raises chickens like Jill and me!

Before waxing rhapsodic about the joys of green living, let's talk about the bottom line. This year we cut our water bill in half, saving around $500. We also cut our electric bill in half, saving $600. We actually saved twice that because half of our electricity went to power our Volt. We would have saved $1200 if we didn't have an electric car. Our car used around 2200 kwh to drive 10,000 miles. If we had a typical American car that averages 25 mpg at $3 per gallon, we would have paid $1200 for gasoline to drive 10,000 miles. So we saved $1200 in gasoline expenses. (We average 85 mpg on our Volt.) Finally, because we no longer have a lawn, our gardener comes only once a month and we saved $600 in gardening fees. Total savings: $2900. Not bad.

But we are still paying for dirty energy by purchasing 2500 kwh from our utility company.   Pasadena Power and Light publishes each year a "Power Content Label" so customers can know how their energy is produced (see below). Pasadena has increased the amount of electricity produced by renewable sources from 1% in 2004 to 28% in 2014, but over half of Pasadena's electricity is still produced by dirty coal and gas, and none by solar. We have a long way to go; and unfortunately, the City is locked into a contract with coal (the dirtiest energy source) that will last until 2027, which is shameful. 

However, Pasadena Power and Light allows customers to buy 100% renewable energy for 2.5 cents extra per kilowatt hour through a program called Green Power. To purchase 2200 kwh would cost us $55 extra per year. We plan to pay that amount in the upcoming year so we can be 100% renewable in electric usage for our home and car. 

Pasadena's Green Power Program made me realize that the cost of using 100% renewable energy is not prohibitive. To power a typical home takes around 5000 kwh per year, so the additional cost would be only $110 extra per year. Green energy costs only 10% more than than dirty energy.

Think of it. Only $110 to use 100% clean energy. Most Americans spend more than that per month on dining out!

Even though it isn't cost prohibitive, only 400 Pasadenans take advantage of this program. That's probably because it isn't well known and publicized. Moreover, most people are too busy or too lazy to change, unless there is an incentive to do so.

So how would we incentivize Americans to make this planet-saving choice? 

We know that the incentive program for turf removal worked far better than anyone expected due to the "Keep up with the Jones" effect. As people saw their neighbors replace their lawns with water-wise landscaping, they rushed to do likewise. The same thing could happen if there were more incentives to go green.

Climate scientist James Hansen and the Citizen Climate Lobby have proposed the right kind of incentive: a carbon fee. Charge oil and gas companies a fee that slowly rises each year. This fee is not a tax since it is given back to each citizen each year in the form of a check. People can spend this green dividend as they wish, but most will use it to buy renewable energy or energy-efficient cars and products since it will be cost effective. Economists estimate that the United States would cut its carbon emissions by 30% in a decade using this approach. 

This carbon fee and dividend approach is being used in British Columbia, Canada, and is apparently working. 

Over the past six years, the per-person consumption of fuels [in British Columbia] has dropped by 16% (although declines levelled off after the last tax increase in 2012). During that same period, per-person consumption in the rest of Canada rose by 3%. “Each year the evidence becomes stronger and stronger that the carbon tax is driving environmental gains,” says Stewart Elgie, an economics professor at University of Ottawa and head of Sustainable Prosperity, a pro-green think-tank. At the same time, BC’s economy has kept pace with the rest of the country. See

Since a carbon fee doesn't go to the government but is returned to people, it is appealing to conservatives who dislike taxes and want a  smaller government. This approach also appeals to conservatives since it is market-driven.. People can choose how they want to spend their energy dividend.

This approach appeals to liberals because low-income people will receive the same amount as the rich, but use a lot less energy. It will therefore benefit them more, proportionately.

Our experiment in green living convinces us that we can afford to live sustainably now. We just have to convince the government to do the right thing and make fossil fuel companies pay a fee for the environmental damage they are causing. Then let consumers decide if they want to live in a sustainable world. Most will make the right choice.

By the way, I don't want to end without mentioning the joys of living green. Driving a car powered by the sun, a car as silent as a Quaker meeting, is a great joy. Eating delicious fruit--oranges and figs and persimmons and apricots and peaches and dates--watered by recycled water from one's home is another joy. Living in harmony with mother earth is one of the purest joys I know. Taste and see for yourself how good it is to live green!


    PWP wants its customers to make informed choices about the energy they buy. The Power Content Label is an annual report that shows from which sources your electricity was generated during the previous calendar year. For comparison, the Power Content Label also provides the most recent supply content breakdown for the statewide power mix (as reported by the California Energy Commission).

  • 2014 Power Supply Content
    ENERGY RESOURCES2014 PWP POWER MIX3(Actual)2014 PWP GREEN POWER MIX4 (Actual)2014 CA POWER MIX2 (for comparison)
    Eligible Renewable Total28%100%20%
         - Biomass & Waste 19%  19%  3%  
        - Geothermal2%  2%  4%  
        - Eligible Hydroelectric0%  0%  1% 
        - Solar0%  9%  4%  
        - Wind7%  70%  8%  
    Coal 48% 0%  6% 
    Large Hydroelectric 4% 0% 6% 
    Natural Gas 8% 0% 45% 
    Nuclear7% 0% 9% 
    Unspecified Sources of Power1  5% 0% 14% 
    1. “Unspecified sources of power” means electricity from transactions that are not traceable to specific generation sources.
    2. Percentages are estimated annually by the California Energy Commission (CEC) based on the electricity sold to California consumers during the previous year.  
    3. "PWP Power Mix" represents all sources of energy procured by PWP and provided to all customers (including Green Power Program customers). 
    4. Additional resources procured to achieve the 100% renewable power supply for the Green Power Program include solar and wind resources.
PWP Power Mix 2007-2014

Calendar Year2007200820092010201120122013
Eligible Renewable Total8%8%9%16%24%24%27%
     - Biomass & Waste 5%  6%  5%  8%  13%  14%  16%                  19%
    - Geothermal1%  1%  2%  2%  1%  3%  7%                    2%
    - Eligible Hydroelectric<1 nbsp="" td="">1%  1%  <1 nbsp="" td="">2%  5% 1%                    0%
    - Solar<1 nbsp="" td=""><1 nbsp="" td=""><1 nbsp="" td=""><1 nbsp="" td=""><1 nbsp="" td=""><1 nbsp="" td=""><1 td="">                    0%
    - Wind1%  1%  1%  6%  8%  2%  3%                    7%
Coal65% 60% 61% 54% 56% 44% 52% 48% 
Large Hydroelectric7%  6%  5%  4%  4%  4%  5% 4% 
Natural Gas15%  20%  18%  13%  7%   13%   5% 8% 
Nuclear5%  6%  6%  6%  6%  7%  7% 7% 
Unspecified Sources of Power1 N/A1  N/A1  N/A1  7%  3%  8%  4% 5% 
TOTAL100%  100%  100%  100%  100%100%100% 100% 
  1. The CEC accounting treatment for Unspecified Sources of Power was revised in 2010. Through 2009, energy from Unspecified Sources was allocated to each of the listed energy resource categories based on the applicable California Power Mix.  


    Q. What is the Power Content Label?
    A. The Power Content Label is an annual report that shows the various sources used to supply your electricity. For comparison, the Power Content Label also provides the most recent supply content breakdown for the statewide power mix.
    Q. What is the difference between “PWP Power Mix" and “PWP Green Power”?
    A. “PWP Green Power” is the energy provided to customers enrolled in the PWP Green Power program. The “PWP Power Mix” is the energy provided to all of PWP's customers, including those enrolled in the Green Power program, and comes from a variety of sources.
    Q. Why sign up for Green Power if renewable resources are already in the “PWP Power Mix”?
    A. As more customers sign up for Green Power, PWP will be able to increase investment in renewable sources and decrease the purchases from fossil fuel sources. Sign up for the Green Power Mix here.
    Q. Why don't the numbers seem to add up?
    A. For simplicity in this report, we've rounded the percentages shown to whole numbers.
    Q. Why is the Power Content Label no longer published quarterly?
    A. On October 11, 2009, the Governor signed Assembly Bill 162 which made changes to how electric utilities report their PCL, including changing the reporting requirements from quarterly to annually. Also, posting the PCL on the web (instead of a sending a print mailing) fulfills publishing requirements.

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