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Confused by Green Energy Options? Let Congress Sort It Out for You

What if everyone, not just environmentalists or those who can afford it, could switch to wind- and solar-powered electricity?

One of the most effective ways to live a more environmentally friendly life is to start paying for clean electricity. But it’s complicated: Choosing an electricity provider that sources from wind or solar generally costs more than buying into the energy mix most utilities provide, and not everyone can afford to take the hit on their electricity bill month after month. Those who can then must choose which option they like: 100 percent wind? 50-50 wind and natural gas? This solar-loving company or that one?

Last spring in New York City, I was visiting an innovation-focused festival with a friend when a man waved us over to his booth in an effort to convince us to switch our bills over to his wind-based electricity company. My friend explained that she’d already switched, but the salesman kept pressing her: Which company? Oh, that one? They’re not entirely honest, you know. We’re much better. By the time we escaped, both of us were confused, a little disturbed, and ready to jump back into the waiting arms of ConEdison’s default electricity option. Wouldn’t it be better, we agreed, if we didn’t have to worry about where our electricity came from?

A proposal in Washington could help relieve us of this particular worry. The plan would set up system—a clean energy standard—for electricity providers to gradually increase the percentage of their power that comes from clean energy sources. Under this system, everyone—not just those who can afford it or are willing to deal with the hassle—could turn on the lights or charge a cellphone without dumping unnecessary loads of carbon into the atmosphere.

A clean energy standard is not a radical idea. Most American want some sort of clean energy legislation from Washington, and more than half of states have similar standards in place already. On' Thursday, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), chair of the Senate energy committee, introduced a bill that would create such a standard for the whole country. According to the Energy Information Administration, which has examined the ideas in the legislation, creating a federal clean energy standard would reduce electricity generation emissions by 40 percent by 2035. And while checking off that box on an electricity bill will increase an individual’s monthly bill at first, setting a clean energy standard should have “little or no impact on national electricity rates” for the first decade it’s in place, researchers found.

Bingaman's strategy isn’t the only way to increase clean energy production and decrease carbon emissions. But it’s a good example of how the government can help citizens live up to their best intentions. Instead of millions of individual Americans making the decision to switch to wind power, representatives could make one decision that would mean the rest of us wouldn't need to worry about the source of our electricity. We could be confident that an ever-greater percentage came from nuclear plants, co-generation projects, and solar and wind farms for years to come.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user brooklyn

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