Almighty Power

  • Share
  • Read Later
In October 1997, the Rev. Sally Bingham of San Francisco's Grace Cathedral and Steve MacAusland, a Dedham, Mass., video producer, conceived of a ministry in the marketplace that could turn Sunday sermons about God's green earth into here-and-now environmentalism. Why stop at Ezekiel 36: 5—God lambastes all Edom for plundering his land—when they could actually persuade the faithful to stop their plundering and buy electricity from nonpolluting sources? In this way, they could ease their conscience and help limit the damage done by fossil-fuel-powered plants, which produce about 40% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, the gas most responsible for raising the planet's temperature.

Neither Bingham nor MacAusland recalls which of them named their group. It's almost as if some deity simply declared 'Let there be ‘Episcopal Power & Light,'' and there was Episcopal Power & Light. In a three-year altar-to-altar crusade, they persuaded 30 churches and hundreds of households to buy clean electricity from a company called Green Mountain Energy, only to watch their work—and Green Mountain's nearly 60,000 California customers—smote by deregulation's failure.

Deregulation was supposed to cut electricity prices. But it also allowed consumers to choose a utility on the basis of other criteria, such as the energy source. That prompted EP&L into action. Renewable energy's future is a simple case of demand and supply: if EP&L and others influence consumers to choose renewables, more suppliers will enter the business. And bringing in more suppliers will close the price premium that green energy often carries, which will in turn spark demand.

That was, of course, before California's debacle, which erased EP&L's gains and caused some states to slam the brakes on dereg programs. Elsewhere, deregulation has lowered prices, and the green gang is still making inroads. So the game isn't over—some California parishes have begun strapping solar panels on their roofs—nor is the need for power of all kinds. The Energy Department sees a 25% surge in electricity needs by 2010 and has penciled in a similar rise in capacity. That supply growth depends on the construction of new generators. Yet the White House has proposed a 50% cut in wind and solar research—partly replenishable after 2004 with any revenue generated by selling oil rights for the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge.

EP&L scored big in 1998 when Green Mountain, based in Austin, Texas, agreed to print educational material and offer churches $35 cash for each parishioner who enrolled. Formerly part of a Vermont utility, the company was sold to private investors in 1997. A cynic might call the setup a marketing V.P.'s wildest fantasy: priests endorsing a product in the name of you-know-who and then pounding the pavement. But that would not be entirely fair. Both sides are vulnerable, and neither has an advantage. It's the Holy Spirit meeting the 'invisible hand.' Ecumenical groups are adapting EP&L's model in other states: Maine Interfaith P&L, Oregon Interfaith P&L and New Jersey's Partnership for Environmental Quality. They see an ideological advantage to renewables, which gives them their selling point. With new technology, green power is cheaper than ever, but overall it remains slightly more costly than that produced by fossil fuels—'about a pizza a month,' says David Weisman, who leads a 'green team' at the West Essex, N.J., synagogue Agudath Israel.

That's fine for the environmentally faithful, but clean-power utilities will succeed only if they can match rates with burners. Green Mountain scored a big victory in February, when an energy-buying aggregate in northeastern Ohio handed over more than 400,000 customers. 'It's attractive that Green Mountain has some different energy sources, but that wasn't the paramount issue,' says Thomas J. Coyne Jr., mayor of Brook Park, Ohio. 'The bottom line is, How do we save the most money for the customers?' Green Mountain beat competitors by 1% to 3%; the buyers' aggregate allowed the company to reduce marketing costs and therefore the retail price.

Green Mountain's partnerships with religious groups have been mutually beneficial, but both sides see limitations. The latter don't want to push one company's products exclusively, and Green Mountain would like to dominate a mature or at least maturing market. 'It's nice to be the only game in town,' says Clifton Payne, president of Green Mountain's Eastern region, 'but it might be better for all if there were more games in town.' Local companies that offer green options siphon off potential customers—including 30 other EP&L churches—but Green Mountain remains the most dedicated national player. The total output of U.S. renewables is 16,500 MW, about 2% of the total U.S. grid. 'Until the demand for green energy increases, you're just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,' says Adam Markham of Clean Air–Cool Planet, a nonprofit in Portsmouth, N.H.

That's why Green Mountain has yet to see profits, although some big—and surprising—names support it. (BP Amoco and Nuon, a Dutch utility, each pumped in $50 million last fall and took over the chairmanship from, odder still, Texas billionaire Sam Wyly, an oil and coal man who is also a longtime friend of President Bush's.) The Golden State could have been a huge market, but on Feb. 1 California stripped consumers of the right to choose their electricity provider, be it green or brown.

Now operating in six states, Green Mountain bets that Ohio, Texas and others will make up for lost California accounts. By autumn it expects to serve about 600,000 nationwide. That's pretty low wattage, but with opec threatening to hike oil prices again, the future is, well, brightening. This year, an additional 1,000 MW of green power will come online, thanks to a doubling of wind capacity. Green-energy believers such as Bingham and MacAusland will just have to pray the politicians won't screw it up again and will let the people have the right to pick their power.