MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Hundreds of electric companies are offering the chance to buy green power. The utilities are touting energy from renewable sources, such as wind or solar. But do you know what exactly you'd be buying?
For our series "How Green Is It?" NPR's Elizabeth Shogren decided to find out.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN: David Bell is an architect in Washington, D.C. He's turned an old townhouse into his office with all kinds of environmentally friendly technologies, like a self-charging, automatic water faucet.
Mr. DAVID BELL (Architect): It has a little turbine inside. It's a little hydroelectric plant right here.
SHOGREN: So when an entrepreneur offered him a chance to buy clean electricity and cut his power bills, Bell signed up. But is that what he's really getting?
Do you know where the power comes from that actually powers your lights and the other electrical appliances here?
Mr. BELL: No.
SHOGREN: Is it green power?
Mr. BELL: I've been told it is, yes.
SHOGREN: Not exactly. Turns out the electrons that power the lights and air-conditioning in Bell's office still come primarily from old-fashioned, coal-fired power plants. So, what is the clean power that Bell and so many other consumers are being sold?
Mr. GARY SKULNIK (President, Clean Currents): Well, it's termed green power.
SHOGREN: I asked Gary Skulnik, the entrepreneur who sells electricity to Bell.
Mr. SKULNIK: It doesn't mean that the actual electrons are coming from a wind farm thousands of miles directly to this particular business.
SHOGREN: A lot of people buying clean energy think that's exactly what they're getting. And if you listen to pitches from power companies, you can't blame them.
(Soundbite of advertisement)
Unidentified Man: You know, if my calculations are correct, signing up for pure power means I can prevent over 18,500 pounds of greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere.
Unidentified Woman #1: Now, that's pure genius. How...
SHOGREN: But listen carefully to advertisements like this one, from a company called AmerenUE in St. Louis, and it's a lot more complicated.
(Soundbite of AmerenUE advertisement)
Unidentified Woman #2: When you enroll in pure power, AmerenUE purchases renewable energy certificates equal to 100 percent of your electric usage. That means more reliance on renewable sources, such as wind power, and less on fossil fuels. Plus...
SHOGREN: Did you catch that part about renewable energy certificates? For each unit of power a wind farm sells, it can also sell a renewable energy certificate. In other words, customers aren't actually buying electricity from windmills; their dollars are subsidizing renewable energy to encourage power companies and other businesses to build more windmills and solar plants.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department promote these programs. Gary Skulnik says it's a way to replace dirty power sources with cleaner ones, and fight global warming.
Mr. SKULNIK: It's like taking a glass of water and adding green food coloring to it. You're greening up the power.
SHOGREN: Some researchers, like Michael Gillenwater at Princeton University, think this is all a bit of a shell game.
Mr. MICHAEL GILLENWATER (Researcher, Princeton University): You would think that total amount of investment they're making is all going to build new wind turbines that would not have been there anyway. And that's not true. They're causing probably a little bit of new generation and new investment.
SHOGREN: He says the payoff is pretty small. Customers aren't cutting greenhouse gases nearly as much as they think.
Mr. GILLENWATER: If I buy 10 megawatt hours' worth of green power certificates, maybe I've caused one extra megawatt hour to be generated because of a new wind turbine was built. But nine of those were just there anyway because of government tax incentives and other things.
SHOGREN: So it's there any way you can go out and buy real, actual windmill-generated power?
Mr. DAVID WRIGHT (Commissioner, Ann Arbor Energy Commission): I'm quite frustrated by the current situation.
SHOGREN: David Wright tried to for the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan. He's on the local energy panel there that wanted to buy wind power. But there's only one utility in the area, and all it's selling is coal and nuclear power coupled with those renewable energy certificates.
Mr. WRIGHT: A certificate is not a renewable energy purchase. For the utility and for others to make those claims, I think it's highly misleading.
SHOGREN: If you want to know for sure that the power you're using comes from a windmill, about the only option right now is to put one in your backyard.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.
SIEGEL: And you can find the other stories from our series, "How Green Is It?" at npr.org.