Making it easy to be green

Publication Date: Wednesday Apr 19, 2000

ENVIRONMENT: Making it easy to be green

As Earth Day approaches, city offers residents eco-friendly power

Jennifer Kavanaugh

As the Palo Alto area prepares for the 30th anniversary of Earth Day this Saturday, some environmentalists fear that Mother Nature isn't enjoying the Silicon Valley way of life. Though the Midpeninsula historically has maintained a better-than-average awareness of environmental issues, environmentalists say many residents are literally taking up too much space these days: They're buying bigger cars, replacing small homes with bigger ones, and just generally buying more stuff.

"The more we're buying, the more we get caught up in the consumer mentality, and the less we're concerned with the environment," said Susan Stansbury, executive director of Bay Area Action, a Mountain View-based environmental organization. "That's the exact opposite of conserving our resources."

But it may take an economic disaster--not a natural one--to curb society's taste for conspicuous consumption. For this year's Earth Day, which takes place Saturday, April 22, environmentalists are trying to coax people into making changes that improve the environment but don't necessarily require an overhaul of personal lifestyles.

Environmental groups throughout the world are using this year's Earth Day to highlight the benefits of using renewable, or "green" energy. Green energy refers to the use of such sources as solar power, wind, or geothermal heat in ways that don't harm the environment. Though many utility companies currently rely on hydroelectric power for their energy supplies, environmentalists say water power is harnessed in a manner that is less than "earth-friendly."

Several utilities companies--such as Clean N Green Power and Green Mountain--have sprung up to supply renewable power. The industry for green companies became viable after the government deregulated the industry a few years ago, said Peter Drekmeier, a founder of Bay Area Action, which is trying to encourage the public to support green efforts.

Starting this Saturday, Palo Alto's utilities customers can choose to support green power through their utility bills. The new effort is more of a contribution program than a means to custom-order energy, however. Households that sign up for the program can't request they get electricity only from wind power, for instance. The green power paid for by one household gets mixed in with the rest of the electricity grid before it is distributed through the power lines.

The payoff for the customer, environmentalists say, is knowing that their utility choice puts a little more green power in the system and replaces less environmentally friendly sources. The change in power source shouldn't affect the kind of service anyone gets, according to Stansbury. "It comes into their houses the same way," she said.

But supporting the green power program will increase a customer's utility bill. According to Lucy Hirmina, manager of utilities rates for the city of Palo Alto, customers can choose from one of three rate plans, which vary by the percentage of the bill invested in future green-power growth vs. the amount spent on available sources of green power.

Though electricity use varies by household, Hirmina estimated the program would likely add anywhere from $3 to $15 to the monthly electric bill, depending on the rate plan. The average bill is about $24 a month right now, she said.

Hirmina said the city decided to offer the program after residents kept calling to see if green power was available. Overall, the green power industry has been more static than environmentalists would like to see, but city officials and environmental advocates said more people would choose the service if they had more information.

"I think people want to do the right thing and they want to know how to do it," said Julie Weiss, environmental specialist for the city. "They just need to get the right information."

In addition to starting the green power program, the city's utilities department is offering residents zero-interest loans (up to $10,000) and cash rebates to make their homes more energy efficient. The city will also give out 500 free, energy-saving fluorescent lights at Peninsula Hardware and Palo Alto Hardware on Saturday.

For people who want to see energy-efficient living in action, Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills will have self-guided tours of its earth berm home, demonstrating the use of recyclable materials and solar and wind power.

Hidden Villa, which also sponsors environmental education programs for school children, tries to get people to look at how they use energy and materials, said Diane Holcomb, Hidden Villa's manager of community programs.

"Just from working here, I look at ways I'm wasting," said Holcomb, community programs manager at Hidden Villa. "And I think that everyone who comes here and has taken part in the programs takes that with them." 

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