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Green Power campaign gets under way on Vashon

A Vashon organization has joined forces with Puget Sound Energy in an ambitious campaign to increase the Island’s participation in a program that brings alternative energy into the power grid.

Vashon residents already participate at a higher per capita level than any other bloc of PSE customers in the utility’s Green Power program. Now, Sustainable Vashon is working with PSE to get 110 additional residential and commercial customers to sign on to the program by year’s end — a 20 percent increase in Island participation.

If the goal is met, PSE will contribute $10,000 to the Island, seed money for a community solar project and the second significant grant to Vashon from PSE.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for the Island,” said Janie Starr, who heads Sustainable Vashon. “The funds will go towards a substantive community project.”

The effort complements a drive being led by both Sustainable Vashon and the Backbone Campaign to declare the Island a “coal-free zone” by 2015 — or to reduce the Island’s energy consumption by 36 percent in the next five years. Currently, PSE gets 36 percent of its energy from a coal-fired plant in Montana.

Bill Moyer, who heads the Backbone Campaign, said the only way to reach that goal is for Islanders to reduce their energy consumption and to invest in alternative energy, something they can do by signing up for PSE’s Green Power program.

“The coal-free zone campaign is not about demonizing PSE,” Moyer said. By consuming energy at high levels, he said, “We’re creating the demand that is the justification for buying dirty coal power. We want to remove our complicity in that.”

Starr concurred: “It’s a gentle way to nudge PSE to move away from coal by showing them we don’t need it.”

PSE started its Green Power program in 2001 after the state passed a law requiring utilities of a certain size to provide their customers with a voluntary option to support alternative energy, said Heather Mulligan, PSE’s Green Power market manager. Under the program, residential customers can tack on anywhere from $4 to $10 onto their bill, enabling customers to vote with their pocketbook and support the under-financed world of renewable energy development.

At $10, the customer is essentially buying 100 percent green power — he or she is adding one mega-watt hour of energy, the average amount consumed by a family, to the grid. Commercial users pay more, based on the amount of energy they use.

Advocates compare it to making the choice to purchase organic vegetables at the grocery store; it costs more, but the consumer is helping to build a market for organic produce.

“If I make a conscious choice to pay $4 a month to go towards renewable energy, I’m taking a stand for renewable energy, which I think is a requirement for us to come close to addressing the climate crisis,” Starr said.

PSE’s program has won accolades from those in the renewable energy industry; last year, it was named the green power program of the year by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the nonprofit Center for Resource Solutions.

But participation is still not high, Mulligan said. Currently, nearly 26,000 of PSE’s one million electric customers have signed up for the program — or 2.6 percent.

Thus, the utility, which wants to see the program double in the next few years, has worked with a couple of communities to increase participation, of-fering incentives if they meet their goals, Mulligan said. Both Bellingham and Whidbey Island have had Green Power campaigns, efforts that resulted in significant grants by PSE that the communities are investing in alternative energy demonstration projects.

Now, she said, after Sustainable Vashon ap-proached it to see if a campaign could take place on the Island, the utility is focused on Vashon — a small market but a promising one, Mulligan said. Vashon’s participation is not only the utility’s best; it’s also grown considerably over the past year.

In October of 2008, more than 400 homes and 18 businesses on Vashon — 7 percent of PSE’s Island customers — were in the program. Now, as Vashon enters its Green Power challenge, it has 550 residential customers and 22 commercial customers enrolled in the program, or 9.8 percent of PSE’s Vashon customer base. If Sustainable Vashon and PSE meet the challenge and add 110 new customers to the program, Vashon’s participation will be nearly 12 percent.

Already, the response is strong, Mulligan and Starr said. The Vashon-Maury Chamber of Commerce has endorsed the effort and just last week e-mailed a letter to its more than 200 members encouraging participation. Three businesses signed up right away, Mulligan said.

“I’m thrilled. I think that’s exactly what we were hoping for,” she said.

Later this month, PSE and Sustainable Vashon will have tables set up in front of Thriftway and at the Farmers Market where people can sign up for Green Power.

For businesses on Vashon, which have narrow margins of profit, the decision to sign on can be a difficult one. Melinda Songterath, owner of The Hardware Store Restaurant, became the first restaurant in PSE’s service area to join the program at the 100 percent level — and in so doing, she increased her electric bill by around 10 percent, she said, a significant jump in her monthly costs.

Since then, however, she’s worked with a PSE representative to find ways to conserve electricity — and has now made up the difference in the Green Power program’s higher costs by her reduced energy consumption. She’s also become an emissary for the program, meeting with businesses to encourage their participation.

“I think it makes sense for every business on Vashon,” she said.

“It’s very empowering to be able to make a difference. .... We feel good about it. Our employees feel good about it,” she said.

Last week, Natalie Sheard, owner of Cafe Luna, became one of the program’s newest participants, agreeing to participate at a reduced level, not the full 100 percent program that Sontgerath signed up for.

“We’re on a tight budget. ... I have to watch every penny,” she said.

She’s now looking forward to working with PSE to find ways to reduce her energy consumption and working with her staff to make it an all-out effort.

“My goal is to get to 100 percent,” she said, adding, “I want to be more sustainable and a better steward of the earth.”

For more information

To learn more about Green Power or to sign up, visit PSE’s Green Power Web site or e-mail Heather Mulligan at heather.mulligan@pse.com. Or stop by the PSE booth at the Farmers Market or Thriftway on Saturday, April 17, during an Earth Day celebration.

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