PG&E to Let Customers Help with Global Warming
by: Paul Rogers 15 December 2006
New program shows patrons how much carbon dioxide they emit every month
Concerned about your contribution to global warming? Now you can clean up your mess.
In what is believed to be the first such effort by a major utility in the United States, Pacific Gas & Electric won approval Thursday to launch a program that will tell customers house by house and business by business how much carbon dioxide they emit every month, and then allow them to offset it to become "carbon neutral."
The program, called ClimateSmart, will begin in March or April. Participation is voluntary and will cost $4.31 a month for a typical household.
"We are convinced that climate change is a serious issue and we want to give our customers the opportunity to play a role in dealing with it," said Wendy Pulling, director of environmental policy for PG&E.
The program was approved Thursday 5-0 by the California Public Utilities Commission, a state agency whose members are appointed by the governor. Under the PG&E program, customers who sign up will be given a monthly statement showing how many tons of carbon dioxide they were responsible for based on their use of electricity and natural gas. The burning of fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide, which traps heat in the earth's atmosphere.
An average home generates about 5.3 tons of carbon dioxide a year, PG&E said, about the same as driving a Honda Civic for 15,000 miles.
The customer then would be charged several dollars a month, based on their energy usage. PG&E will use the money to offset the carbon dioxide starting first with projects to replant trees and to buy and preserve forests in California, which absorb carbon dioxide.
As the program progresses, PG&E plans to spend the money on other efforts, including putting electricity in at truck stops to allow truckers to shut off their idling diesel engines. Another idea is to capture methane from landfills.
The PUC required that PG&E's offset program be audited annually, with results made public, and that they comply with standards set by the California Climate Action Registry, a state agency.
Environmentalists and energy experts are generally supportive.
"This is a big deal," said Dan Kammen, director of the renewable energy lab at the University of California, Berkeley. "The big benefit of this program is that it will get people interested in global warming and talking more about it."
Kammen noted, however, that to make significant reductions in carbon dioxide, Congress will need to adopt a mandatory national program to cut emissions. He said that would have to include a tax on carbon use, offset by reductions in other taxes.
"We're going to have to tax what we don't want," he said.
A broad majority of the world's climate scientists now say global warming is under way and is caused largely by humans. Since global temperature records first first taken 125 years ago, the 10 hottest years on earth all have occurred since 1990. Researchers fear that as the planet warms, droughts and forest fires will become more severe, wildlife will be disrupted, hurricanes will grow more intense, and local problems will emerge, such as the melting of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which California depends on for much of its water supply.
In recent years, the idea of becoming "carbon neutral" has grown in popularity. Private companies sell credits to people to offset their emissions from driving and other activities. Former Vice President Al Gore, for example, buys carbon credits to offset the carbon dioxide emitted from airplane flights he takes.
The firms use those credits to subsidize wind, solar energy and other projects, although critics say the practice is loosely regulated and potentially fraught with fraud and abuse.
The PG&E program has come under some criticism. Consumer activists note PG&E expects to sign up about 4 percent or 5 percent of its 5.8 million customers, and will spend $16 million in marketing and advertising while generating only $20 million to $29 million to offset carbon.
"This is consumers' money we are talking about. Is this the best way to spend it, or is this program weighted too heavily toward administration and marketing?" said Mindy Spratt, a spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, in San Francisco.
Spratt's group wanted PG&E shareholders to pay for marketing, but the PUC allowed the utility to charge all customers roughly 3 cents a month for the costs.
Electricity generation emits about 22 percent of California's greenhouse gases. Transportation emits 38 percent; industry 14 percent.
PG&E provides natural gas and electric service to roughly 15 million people in northern and central California, from Eureka through the Bay Area to Bakersfield.
To learn more, go to http://www.pge.com/environment.