Is Your Utility’s Green Energy Option Actually Sustainable?

New Year’s is always a good time to think about the choices I’m making as a consumer and how I can move through the world more ethically — so when my utility sent me their periodic reminder about their “Green Choice” program, it got me to thinking: What does that actually mean?

Many utilities are starting to offer some kind of variation on this service in response to consumer demand. They may offer three tiers: basic electricity, electricity sourced from a higher percentage of renewables and fully-renewable electricity service.

Obviously, this is more about you voting for the energy portfolio your utility draws upon to meet customer needs; they can’t actually guarantee that the electricity distributed to your residence is 100 percent renewable.

When you read about “green choice” programs, you may assume that they contain a high mix of wind and solar power. Many plans also contain nuclear, a controversial source of renewable energy — because while it’s extremely efficient, it also produces hazardous byproducts.

But are you aware of other processes that are technically “renewable” but not actually at all environmentally friendly?

Greta Jochem at Grist recently reported that utilities can consider things like trash incinerators “renewable,” alongside using waste from poultry and pig farms as fuel. Burning these products can generate substantial pollution, even if the source of the energy is, uh, technically renewable.

The lack of industry standards and clear guidance is a big problem here, and the definitions for “renewable” can vary widely from state to state. My home state of California, for example, considers biomass “renewable.” Biomass plants burn wood and plant waste and can produce shocking amounts of pollution. Not exactly what I call green energy.

Some utilities are aware that consumers might want to know where their power is coming from — and unfortunately, sometimes their reaction is to make this information harder to access. Or they say it’s hard to nail down precise sources and percentages when the contracts they rely on can fluctuate from day to day. That can make it challenging to get accurate information — although sometimes when you have a choice of utilities, they’re more forthcoming with this information.

If you want to know where your power is coming from, and whether you should shell out for that “green choice,” you have a couple of options.

One is to just contact your utility, but be prepared to pin them down on specifics. What does that “other” column mean? Do they use biomass? Who audits energy sources? Does your utility also maintain information about the carbon footprint of its energy — not just the sources, which can sometimes be a tipoff that “renewable” energy is actually polluting?

Another option is to check out annual reports produced for the benefit of shareholders, regulators and other interested parties. You’re entitled to that information too — and while poring over it can make for rough reading, it’s also very illuminating.

In addition to annual reports, your utility may need to file disclosures with state regulators that could provide interesting and useful information about where its power comes from. You can request these under the Freedom of Information Act.

If you really want to put them on the spot, show up at a board or regulatory meeting to ask questions. Bringing these issues up in a setting like this means they end up on the record, alerting other customers to your concerns and also pushing the utility to be more transparent about its practices.

The bottom line is that voting with your wallet for renewable energy can be a great thing to do for the environment … just make sure you know what you’re buying. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some annual reports to read.

Photo credit: Kahunapule Michael Johnson/Creative Commons


David C
David C2 months ago

thanks, noted, where can we check our individual utility?

Maria P
Maria P2 months ago

thank you

HEIKKI R2 months ago

thank you

Jessica C
Jessica C2 months ago

interesting thank you

Mely Lu
Mely Lu2 months ago


Lorraine A
Lorraine A2 months ago

I am afraid it will be many years, if ever, that KY stops using coal. I had hopes under Obama but Trump opened all those coal mines back up and that was the end of that,

Danuta W
Danuta Watola2 months ago

Thanks for sharing

hELEN h2 months ago


Henry M
Henry M2 months ago

What do you mean that nuclear energy is "extremely efficient"? Mining and processing nuclear ores, building the power plants, and storing the wastes requires lots of energy, so nuclear power inly barely cones out ahead, and probably wouldn't be competitive at all in the US were it not for government subsidies.

Thomas M
Thomas M2 months ago

thank you