When the DC-area restaurant chain Austin Grill purchased wind power for its six locations in 2003, it was like a glorious environmental star bursting in our region. Shortly thereafter, wind power and other forms of green energy became available to residents throughout Maryland and DC thanks to the new consumer choice program. A couple of years later, I co-founded Clean Currents, Maryland’s first and at the time, only company that exclusively sold clean power to residents and businesses. Wind power caught the imagination of thousands of environmentally conscious Marylanders. Clean Current flourished and thousands of area residents flooded through our web site to sign up for wind power. We had created the first green wave to roll over our hills.
Other companies jumped on the trend and soon buying wind power became mainstream. A new business announcing it had gone 100% wind now elicited the barest of shrugs from even the most ardent environmentalists. Still, thousands of households continued switching over, offsetting massive amounts of carbon. But this model had its limits, and the market quickly found itself bumping into these blockades.
Buying wind power is more expensive than paying the standard utility offer. Yes, it’s voting with your wallet, but asking people to pay more for their electricity cuts out a huge part of the market. Moderate and lower income residents are particularly ignored in this model as they cannot afford the added expenses. Unlike purchasing organic food, buying wind power may be good for the planet but it has no direct impact on the quality of your lifestyle or health.
Further, most wind power options are for wind farms out of state, even in far off places like Texas. So, purchasing wind typically does nothing to help local air quality, nor create local jobs and infrastructure. Finally, wind power is typically purchased from wind farms that are already up and running. The purchase is certainly a good thing to do and helps in the fight for climate calm, but it does not directly add new clean generation to our energy mix.
Just as the green wind wave began to recede, a new star emerged in the environmental galaxy– the sun. Copying innovative market models started in Colorado and other states, Maryland adopted a law creating a community solar program. Community, or shared solar, allows residents to purchase solar power from a large, nearby solar farm and get the same benefits as if they had the system on their own roof. Because of the changing dynamics of production, solar has become so cheap that people can subscribe to these community solar projects and save money. The cost savings and other features of the program open solar access to everybody, not just the select few. There are projects focused on low- and moderate- income consumers. Plus, having a few more dollars in the family budget helps those in need the most.
I started Neighborhood Sun as the only company in Maryland exclusively focused on community solar and we are now at the head of the market. By definition, community solar has to be close by. Subscribers to projects know they are not only fighting climate change, but they are helping to clean our local air and create local jobs. Plus, there’s the additionality piece. Without subscribers, these projects don’t get built. Every subscriber has the satisfaction of knowing they are adding new clean energy right here in our region. Creating stronger communities, cleaning our air, and saving money? It’s no wonder that we have a new green wave sweeping across every tip of the state. But it’s still early in the market, and that means we are back to a situation similar to that 2003 day when Austin Grill announced its wind purchase. The most environmentally conscious consumers, the most committed green activists, and the early adopters of new technology are all jumping into the community solar pool. The leaders are subscribing now to build the market that will enable the rest of us to get clean power for a discount.