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I bought a half-kilowatt of solar energy for $9 in under 10 minutes

Solar panels are out of financial reach for a lot of people. Solar energy, however, is more accessible. So, after writing about how relatively easy it is to claim renewable energy for your own personal use, I set out to get some solar power for myself.

It took about 10 minutes and cost me $9, and it’s likely just as easy for you.

Utilities often offer green power pricing programs in which their customers can pay a bit of a premium to buy renewable energy. It’s a relatively simple way to satisfy your desire to use renewable energy. At least 1 million utility customers bought renewable energy this way in 2020. Not all renewable energy is created the same, though, and it’s worth a bit of digging to make sure your purchase is making a difference.

To be fair, I did my digging after the fact.

Buying solar power was quick and easy
I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and my electric provider is Consumers Energy. I knew it had renewable energy programs and, from my recent reporting, had a pretty good idea of how they were likely to work. So I headed to its website.

It took me four clicks to get to a subscription form for a program called Solar Gardens. Solar Gardens allows customers like me to subscribe to solar panels that Consumers Energy has built in Michigan.

For an extra (yes, extra) $9 each month on my bill, I could subscribe to half of a kilowatt of solar production. I would get a credit of about $4 back for the energy my portion of the array produced — and for the satisfaction of using solar energy. Consumers Energy would also retire the renewable energy certificates on my behalf, which means I rightly get to say I used that energy. (I double-checked this with Consumers. The utility said that I get to claim the environmental benefits of the solar energy I’m paying for and that this energy doesn’t cover its own renewable energy obligations under Michigan law.)

Solar production varies based on how much the sun shines. I bought a half-kilowatt block, which Consumers Energy told me is expected, on average, to generate about 750 kilowatt hours a year.

Consumers Energy says the average household would need 10 or 12 of the blocks to offset their annual energy cost. I use a lot less energy than the average household. Over the past 12 months, I used 4,376 kilowatt hours, so I would only need to buy six blocks to completely offset my energy use.

Next, I entered contact information and my service address. I certified that I was the account holder and that I had read the terms and conditions. (Truth: I had not.)

And that was it. I had bought some solar energy.

What does my utility do with my money?
It felt a little weird to send extra money to my utility. I wanted to make sure my $9 a month is making a difference, even a small one.

A key concept in renewable energy is “additionality.” If a purchase of renewable energy provides additionality, it supports the creation (or addition) of more renewable energy.

“Your subscription is going to allow us to add even more solar than we are planning today,” said Sarah Nielsen, executive director of transportation, renewables and storage at Consumers Energy.

Technically, my $9 is going to refill a pot of money that Consumers Energy has used to build the solar energy I’m subscribed to. The utility said it will use my subscription fee to build new solar production ahead of schedule.

“What Solar Gardens does is allow our customers to say: I want to help us get there even faster,” Nielsen said.

Green power pricing programs, where customers pay a premium for renewable energy, are required by Michigan law, in part to defray the cost of renewable energy for others. The utility also offers customers the ability to purchase renewable energy for an additional 1.4 cents per kilowatt hour. (I used 334 last month, so it would have cost $4.68.) About 18,000 Consumers Energy customers are part of a green power pricing program, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

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Not long ago, renewable energy was more expensive than energy generated by fossil fuels. The extra money from a green power pricing program could be used to pay for the more expensive renewable generation that otherwise wouldn’t be built. That’s additionality. Today renewable energy sources are often cheaper than fossil-fuel energy plants, meaning more and more utilities are adding renewable energy as part of their business as usual.

That throws a bit of a wrench into the idea of additionality.

“If they’re going to build solar for all their new resources anyway, the idea of additionality just gets fuzzier,” said Douglas Jester, managing partner at 5 Lakes Energy, a clean energy public policy consulting firm in Michigan.

Building solar energy faster than planned is still really significant for the planet. The United Nations has said the world needs to cut carbon emissions by about half by 2030 and get to net zero by 2050. And because carbon emissions accumulate in the atmosphere, reducing them earlier is important.

“To the extent that you’re doing it earlier, you are reducing the accumulation that drives climate change,” Jester said. “So that is a real benefit even though it’s only that you’re accelerating it by a few years.”

Can you buy solar power without the panels?
While the details of the plans differ, many utilities, especially the big ones, offer similarly simple ways to purchase renewable energy.

Nine out of the 10 largest in America offer some sort of green power pricing program, which allows you to pay a premium for renewable energy. Nearly every state has at least one utility offering green power pricing.

I checked in on a few. These programs were relatively easy to find online and seemed fairly simple to join, as quite a few people have found. Over a million customers bought renewable energy through a green power pricing program, according to data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

If you’re concerned about where your money goes, you can check for (the voluntary) Green-e Energy Certification or make sure your utility offers you that information.

Unless you’re a large company (or using way more energy than I am), your extra contribution to supporting renewables won’t be huge. But in my case, I’m achieving a few things.

I’m creating a tiny bit more demand for solar energy, helping fund new solar installations and doing something about my concern over climate change. Nine bucks a month might seem like a lot or a little. (And I do get some of that back on my bill.) But it’s a place to start. And, I can rightfully say, I’m using solar energy, even without the panels.

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