4 ways to sustainably power your home

Solar panel on a red roof

When trying to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle, it’s too easy to get wrapped up in things like packaging and what products are better for the environment. While I still very much do believe that mindfully shopping with our values in mind and not just default to the easier option, I’m coming to realize these are small potatoes compared to the really significant changes that we can make.

Specifically, reducing our household carbon emissions.

In the United States, 20% of greenhouse gas emissions comes from heating, cooling, and powering our homes. And the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to contribute to that.

While there are simple ways to reduce your energy usage, such as air drying clothes and adjusting the temperature of your home by a degree or two, most of us still rely on fossil fuels to power our homes. After all, we can’t function without electricity and many of us without heating our homes in the dead of winter or cooling into in the summertime. We need to refrigerate and cook our food, wash our clothes and ourselves.

And with more of us working from home — and maybe even kids learning from home — we need to power our devices and wifi. It all adds up super quick. And most of us have limited choice when it comes to what utility companies we use.

Fortunately there are ways you can reduce your impact without working by candlelight and giving up your reliance on the internet.

Steps to reducing your household carbon emissions

Before we dig in, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Ryan Katofsky, Managing Director at Advanced Energy Economy, for chatting with me for 90 minutes so that I could share this information. (Side note: Ryan spoke to me as someone I know personally, not as a representative of AEE.) After attending a small discussion he hosted on electrifying our homes, I knew this was a really important topic to cover, and I wanted to make sure I got the information right.

Ryan shared with me that three biggest household fossil fuel emitters come from:

  1. Powering your home 
  2. Heating your home
  3. Transportation (i.e. driving)

The most important thing you can do to reduce your emissions is to first, do an energy audit; second, switch to renewables to power your home and to electrify everything.

(After that, switch to an electric vehicle.)

As I began to write this blog post, I realized it was way too much information to cram into one post, so for this one, we’ll focus on switching to renewables to power our homes.

What is renewable energy?

As the NRDC explains, “Renewable energy, often referred to as clean energy, comes from natural sources or processes that are constantly replenished. For example, sunlight or wind keep shining and blowing, even if their availability depends on time and weather.”

(Conversely, fossil fuels, such as oil, natural gas, and coal, are non-renewable energy sources that release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air and that get trapped in our atmosphere, and lead to climate change. )

There are other renewable energy sources, such as hydropower and geothermal energy, but we’re going to focus on solar & wind energy.

Four ways you can switch to renewable energy to power your home

…even if you don’t own your home.

Wow, look how many houses have solar panels!

While walking around our new neighborhood a couple months after moving halfway across town to our new condo (#pandemicmove), I was struck by how many homes had the shiny black panels adorning their roofs.

When people think of greening their home, probably one of the first images that comes to mind is a home with solar panels. And while this is one way to switch to renewables to power your home (while also encouraging your neighbors to also get solar panels) buying solar panels is not the only option.

This is great news if you can’t afford the initial upfront investment of purchasing solar panels, have an old roof that will likely need to be replaced soon, or if you don’t own your home.

When it comes to switching to renewables to power your home, in addition to buying solar panels, your other options include:

  • Leasing solar panels or using a power purchase agreement (PPA)
  • Subscribing to a solar garden
  • Opting in to 100% renewable electricity supply through your municipality (also known as community choice aggregation) or a reputable competitive electricity supplier (if you live in a state where these are options)

Leasing solar panels

If you want solar panels but don’t want to or can’t afford to outright buy them, another option is either a Solar Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) or a lease. With these options, you usually don’t need to put any money down (so it’s a lower upfront course). When you lease the solar panels, it’s like leasing a car in that you pay a fixed monthly rate to cover the costs of the panels and equipment. 

Solar panel on a red roof

With a PPA, you pay for the actual electricity the panels produce. In either case, the electricity generated offsets what you buy from your utility, and the company that owns the system does the financial engineering so that the cost to you should be lower than what you pay for electricity from the grid. Here’s a bit more about how it works:

A solar power purchase agreement (PPA) is a financial agreement where a developer arranges for the design, permitting, financing and installation of a solar energy system on a customer’s property at little to no cost. The developer sells the power generated to the host customer at a fixed rate that is typically lower than the local utility’s retail rate. This lower electricity price serves to offset the customer’s purchase of electricity from the grid while the developer receives the income from these sales of electricity as well as any tax credits and other incentives generated from the system.

Solar Energy Industries Association

One potential downside is that the company gets any the tax credits. And the leases tend to be longer-term, so it might not be the best option if you plan on moving anytime soon. (Though the companies will help to transfer the lease or PPA to the new homeowner.)

Also, your home might not technically be fully powered through renewable energy since the company actually owns the Renewable Energy Certificates (REC). Since I can’t do justice explaining about RECs, I’ll let this video do it.

(Whew, this is complicated!)

Subscribing to a solar garden

If you want solar panels but can’t install them on your home, either because you rent, live in a building with a shared roof, or simply don’t have a good roof for solar. another option is subscribing to a solar garden, or community solar.

Community solar allows residents, small businesses, organizations, municipalities and others to receive credit on their electricity bills for the power produced from their portion of a solar array, offsetting their electricity costs.

Community solar allows for equal access to the economic and environmental benefits of solar energy generation regardless of the physical attributes or ownership of an individual’s home or business. In other words, if you can’t install solar directly on your property, community solar can be a good option for accessing the savings and other benefits solar provides.

Solar Energy Industries Association

For solar gardens to make financial sense, your state needs to offer a mechanism for you to receive credits on your electric bill as if the panels were on your roof. Here in Massachusetts where I live, we have what’s called virtual net metering.

Not every state offers this option yet, and as far as I can tell, and you might have to dig around to find an option near you. You can also check out EnergySage to see if there are any projects near you.

Community Choice Aggregation

One other option to power your home with renewable energy is Community Choice Aggregation. As of March 2021, seven states offer this. Community Choice Aggregation allows local governments to procure electricity supply on behalf of  its residents and businesses. (It’s still delivered by the local utility company so you won’t notice any change in your electricity service.) 

This has allowed a growing number of communities to increase the renewable energy content of the electricity used in that community and to offer easy ways for households and businesses to opt up to 100% renewable energy sources. If you choose to opt up, it will cost you a little bit more. You’ll still pay for your electricity through your regular utility bill, but you will see a different company listed in the supplier section .

If you live in a municipality that offers it, this is probably the easiest option (and what my household is doing ).

It took less than five minutes to do and just required me to fill out a form through my City’s website. The more households that do this — the more renewable energy sources need to be built.

Here’s a short explanation of how it works

“Green Municipal Aggregation, or GMA, is a model we devised with energy broker Good Energy that adds more Class I or “new” renewable energy to residents’ electricity at a competitive price. When a community decides to enact GMA, it goes out to bid for an electricity supplier and secures a long-term price and a cleaner electricity supply. That supplier replaces the utility’s Basic Service, offers a more stable price (usually cheaper in the long run, too), and adds more renewable energy than required by state law.”

Green Energy Consumer’s Alliance

(For a bit more information short executive summary that explains how it works and what the Green Energy Consumer’s alliance has been able to accomplish)

Unfortunately not every state offers this option, and not all municipalities within Massachusetts offer this. Also, the downside is that currently the 100% renewable option electricity costs are more than the non-100% renewable option. (Though that difference, depending on the size of your home, might be in the tens of dollars per month range. For example, on our most recent bill, we paid an additional $30.)

Ok, so I realize some of these options take a lot of mental energy that you might not have right now. But if you really value reducing your environmental impact and living more sustainably, you should use your limited mental capacity to focus on switching to renewable energy to power your home.

After that, it’s time to start electrifying everything!

Action steps to move toward reducing your household’s carbon footprint:

  • Get an estimate of your household’s carbon footprint
  • If you haven’t had one done yet, sign up for an energy audit
  • Check out the solar calculator to estimate how much you could save by getting solar panels
  • If you live in a state with Community Choice Aggregation (California, Illinois, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, or Massachusetts) see if your community offers it. If you live in RI or MA and your municipality doesn’t offer it, you can still do it via Green Energy Consumer’s Alliance

Additional resources for MA residents:

  • I’ve heard great things about SunBug solar if you’re interested in purchasing solar panels (I have no affiliation with them)
  • You can have a free energy home assessment with Mass Save — this is available for both renters & homeowners
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