With coal and gas battling it out as the fuel of choice for electricity generation, it's sometimes easy to forget that renewables like wind and solar play a part in keeping the lights on. Pennsylvania is one of 20 or so states that has deregulated the retail electricity market. Customers now have the option to add more renewable energy to the power mix, like Dan Hughes.
"To me, I'm trying to walk the walk. If I want to see people reduce their carbon footprints, it begins with each individual in their own home," said Hughes.
Hughes gets his electricity from Green Eagle, a new electricity option in the Pittsburgh region that's backed by wind energy. A few months ago, he switched his electricity supplier from a utility that gets most of its power from coal.
"I'm probably saving anywhere from 10 to 15 dollars a month. So this is an opportunity to take advantage of a rare confluence of cheap and green energy."
Citizen Power is a Pittsburgh nonprofit group that markets the Green Eagle plan, the electricity option Dan Hughes uses.
Ted Robinson is the group's legal consultant. He says deregulation got rid of price limits on electricity and allows customers to choose electric suppliers based on their rates and how they generate their power.
"We started looking into the possibility of providing a low cost green energy option for consumers. And after a bunch of searching we finally found TriEagle Energy who was willing to provide us with a renewable product."
Robinson's group basically markets the electric plan by word of mouth. Their admittedly low-key marketing approach has cut down on costs and attracted customers. So far about 750 have switched to TriEagle's rosters. Like most electric suppliers that offer renewable options in Pennsylvania, Texas-based TriEagle Energy buys its renewable power.
Each time a supplier buys one megawatt hour of electricity from a wind, solar or small hydro powered generator, it gets a renewable energy credit. These credits are important because of a Pennsylvania law mandating suppliers to use a certain percentage of renewable energy. And suppliers can trade them.
"So there's a demand for these credits and they have value," said Robinson.
Other Pennsylvania suppliers have "added on" renewable packages to their existing coal or gas generated electricity plans. With credits or add-ons, the electricity becomes part of the regional grid and changes the energy mix.
John Holtz markets Green Mountain Energy, an electricity supplier in eastern Pennsylvania that offers regional wind packages. Holtz says think of the energy grid as a giant bathtub.
"That bathtub has two faucets: the renewable energy faucet and the dirty system energy faucet which comes from fossil fuels or nuclear. So every time that a customer subscribes to use renewable energy they're turning that green energy faucet on just a little bit more and the dirty power faucet isn't turning on so much anymore."
Fossil fuels are still the major power providers in Pennsylvania but the renewable energy faucet is running a little more these days. Although the state doesn't track the number of customers who have renewable power options, it does follow energy trends.
Seventeen wind farms in Pennsylvania now produce enough power to light up nearly a quarter of a million homes. That's about 2% of the electricity demand.
Industry experts say it's important to get more customers to switch to wind and other renewable plans to step up growth. The US Department of Energy expects that growth will coincide with the price of energy sources over the next decade or two. Chris Namovicz, who studies renewable power at the U.S. Energy Information Administration, said that decreasing cost of renewable energy and the increasing costs of conventional fuels like natural gas will eventually make renewables competitive.
Some consumers like Lisa Gensheimer, a recent convert to wind-backed energy near Erie, aren't waiting for prices to come down. She estimates she'll pay an extra $15 to $20 more a month with her new electricity option but she's OK with that.
"I want to see us as a country support more wind and solar development and this is my vote. This my way of putting my money where my mouth is and saying, you know, it's worth the investment," Gensheimer said.
Other people think investment in renewable powered electricity is worth it. The National Renewable Energy Lab estimates that each working wind turbine in Pennsylvania reduces carbon dioxide by 4000 tons a year. That's like getting 700 cars off the road.