How to sign up for renewable electricity

It was one of my new year’s resolutions this year to sign up for 100% renewable electricity, and we finally did it this week! What took us so long? Well, if you’ve tried to shop for an electric supplier before, you’d know – this stuff is incredibly confusing, and scammy, very scammy. Not everyone’s got hours (or days) to read up on all the minutia related to the energy market, so I figured I’d share what I’ve learned researching this topic in the past several months, in hopes that you find it useful as you navigate through the signup process!

First up, what is considered renewable and why should you switch?

Renewable energy, also referred to as clean energy, is created by resources or processes that are naturally replenished. Solar and wind energy are the most well-known examples, though many other forms of renewable energy exist, such as geothermal energy (harnessing the natural heat below the earth surface), biomass (e.g., burning biofuel), tidal energy, hydroelectricity (where hydraulic turbine converts the energy of flowing water into energy).

The burning of fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas is the leading contributor to human-made emissions. The extraction and combustion also cause oil spills, acid rain, air pollution, and a host of other environmental and public health problems. Needless to say, transitioning to renewable energy sources is one of the most crucial solutions to climate change! For the first time this year, US renewable energy consumption surpassed coal in over 130 years (yay!), but we’ve still got a long way to go. Currently, renewables account for 11% of US energy consumption – by voluntarily switching your electricity source, you are taking one of the most impactful actions individuals can make against climate change.

Image credit: US Energy Information Administration.

“Sounds great! How do I go about it?”

There are several ways to make the switch for your home, such as installing solar panels, wind propellers, or solar water heaters, and new technology is constantly coming on the market. (I grew up with a solar shower at my grandparents’ house when the technology was still nascent, and remember many…lukewarm showers.) A friend of mine who works in the energy sector has even told me he’s had clients doing geothermal energy (through ground source heat pumps) right here in Massachusetts! 

But of course, you don’t have to go these complicated and sometimes expensive routes! The most accessible way for most people to sign up for renewable electricity is to change the electric supplier on your existing electricity account. If you look at at your electricity bill, there are typically two sections: electricity delivery and electricity supply. The delivery portion refers to the cost of transmission and distribution of electricity to your house, and most people don’t have a choice when it comes to the utility company that delivers your electricity. Mine is Eversource. The supply portion of the bill tells you the charge for the actual electricity used and what is paid to your electric supplier. They might be the same company that delivers your electricity (e.g., Eversource), but they don’t have to be. So when I say “sign up for renewable electricity”, what I mean is – change your electricity supplier to a company that generates electricity through solar, wind, etc. 

Sample bill, courtesy of Eversource’s website.

“Seems…easy enough?”

HA! *cough, excuse my cynicism. Now that we’ve got the basics out of the way, here is the part I tell you that finding the right electric supplier is unfortunately not easy. Below, for example, is a list of competitive electric suppliers from Eversource’s website. I took a screenshot here but it’s a long list that you could scroll for a while. WHAT IS ANYBODY SUPPOSED TO DO WITH THIS? Which one is renewable? What are their prices?

So before you start calling every single one on the list, search for external websites where someone has already done the homework. In Massachusetts, a good place to start is Energy Switch Massachusetts. This is a website built by the state government to help people shop for electric suppliers and it’s quite handy. You’ll need to enter your zip code and criteria (100% renewable, regional renewable sources, no cancellation fees, etc), and the website shows you a list of options and estimated costs (based on your average electricity usage).

If you do not live in Massachusetts, there are other websites that can help you compare electric suppliers in other states. Electricity Plans is one I’ve come across in my research, and it covers New York, Ohio, Texas, Connecticut, and Illinois. 

Solar panels, you beautiful beautiful thing. Image credit: Zbynek Burival via Unsplash

If you can’t find a reliable source online that gives you the info you need and end up having to shop for a supplier by calling or scrolling their website, be sure to understand these important details:

  • From what source(s) is the electricity generated?
  • Is the renewable energy certified by an independent third party? If so, who is it?
  • How long is the contract?
  • Is there an enrollment fee or monthly fee on top of the electricity charge?
  • What is the rate? Is it fixed or variable? Fixed rate gives you predictability, but variable rate could sometimes be cheaper. Just know that even fixed rates aren’t fixed forever – since future electricity prices is unknown – so be sure to ask about fixed rates for how long, and does it change to a variable rate in the next contract?
  • Do contracts automatically renew?
  • Are there cancellation fees if I want to end the contract early?

“Ugh. Anything else I can do to make sure I don’t get scammed or end up with a crazy electric bill?”

Yes! (And ugh, indeed.) Here are a couple of other tips:

  • Phone a friend! Do you know someone who is happy with their renewable electric supplier? How long have they been with them and how much has their bill changed? This is the sort of thing word of mouth could really help.
  • Definitely read reviews of the electric supplier before you make the switch. Of course, negative reviews tend to make it online than positive reviews when it comes to utility, but they can still be helpful in terms of showing you the warning signs. Read through those Better Businesses Bureau complaints, does it seem like everyone has trouble cancelling their contract?! RED FLAG!
  • Watch that bill! Be vigilant about the charges that show up on your bill – do they match the terms of the contract? Switching to renewable does typically mean your bill will go up, by not necessarily by a lot (e.g., the average monthly US electricity consumption is 914 kWh per residential utility customer, so if your rate goes up by…say $0.02 per kWh, you are looking at ~$20 increase on your bill.)
  • Get ready to jump ship. Another important thing to know, my friends, is that you have options! If you aren’t happy with the supplier, you can always switch. To entice new customers, many companies will give you a low fixed rate for your first contract, which then changes to variable rates when the contract renews. The friend I chatted with when I was researching used a good analogy: it’s a lot like finding an internet provider – great promotional rate then increasing costs after that initial period. Solution: keep shopping for competitive rates every one to two years, or look for a longer contract that guarantees you a rate that you are happy with.
Image credit: Karsten Würth via Unsplash

“So after all that – who did you go with?!”

Being in the greater Boston area, we are lucky to have a lot of options. So here is the slightly embarrassing part of the story where I tell you I didn’t end up signing with any of the suppliers I was researching! Feeling confused and overwhelmed by the amount of information I came across, I briefly considered signing up with the Green Energy Consumer Alliance – a non-profit that does incredible work here in New England. (GECA runs a very transparent program that allows you to purchase Renewable Energy Certificates, RECs. Buying RECs is another way to support the renewable energy grid, a topic I won’t get into here, but here is an excellent explainer if you’d like to learn more). 

Ultimately, with our recent move, we ended up signing up for renewable electricity through a municipal program. Municipal aggregation, also sometimes called community aggregation or community choice, is when cities or counties determine where its electricity comes from and purchases electricity in bulk on behalf of its residents and small businesses. Municipal aggregation can be used to procure competitive rates, and help create demand for renewable energy (green municipal aggregation, GMA). The benefit is that well – you’ll know it’s definitely not a scam, though I’m not sure how widely available GMA programs are.

If you live in Massachusetts, here is a full list of towns that have municipal aggregation programs. Some provide 100% renewable options, but not all. The city of Boston is not yet on the list, but it will be launching a community choice program soon. Learn more about it here.

Phew, that was a lot! Thanks for making it all the way to the end. Do you use a renewable electric supplier? Share which one, and any other tips you might have!

(Header image credit: American Public Power Association via Unsplash)