The City of Palo Alto Utilities (CPAU) launched a program in June that offers wind and solar power to residents and businesses. Palo Alto Green provides an easy and affordable way for the utility's customers to support renewable energy resources and to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Situated in the San Francisco Bay Area, Palo Alto is an affluent community of 61,200 residents that is served by a municipal utility that provides electric, fiber optic, natural gas, sewer and water services. Most of the utility's electricity comes from a combination of “brown power” sources — such as natural gas, hydroelectricity, coal and nuclear sources — but periodic customer surveys revealed that residents were interested in supporting more “green power” sources — such as wind, solar and geothermal energy.

In 1999, CPAU launched its first renewable energy purchasing program, called Future Green, that allowed customers to pay a premium on their utility bills to support renewable energy sources. After three years, however, the program had a participation rate of less than 1 percent, which utility officials attributed to a confusing tiered payment system that offered a variety of participation levels.

This year, CPAU contracted with San Francisco-based 3 Phases Energy to retool the program and to manage renewable energy purchases on behalf of the city. The renamed program, Palo Alto Green, will get power from wind turbine facilities owned by Portland, Ore.-based Federal Bonneville Power Administration. It also will purchase solar power from facilities that will be built in the city by next year.

To participate in the program, residents and businesses elect to pay a premium on their utility bills. For the average household using 650 kilowatt hours per month, the premium is $9.75 monthly, which is half the cost of the most aggressive payment plan offered under the previous program. Participants also receive a quarterly newsletter and additional materials explaining and certifying the environmental impact of their purchases.

The wind and solar power is commingled in a regional grid, which also contains brown power and hydropower. Participants are not guaranteed that they will receive electrons from any particular source, but their financial contributions will allow the utility to reduce the amount of brown power that it purchases.

Every 400 to 500 people who join the program will support the construction of a new wind generator. The utility estimates that each participant will prevent the release of more than 10,460 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions and other particulate matter into the atmosphere annually. The environmental benefit is equivalent to planting 624 trees or not driving 11,762 miles each year, says Anthony Enerio, program manager. “The environmental benefits are so huge that I think the community responds to that,” he says.

Six weeks after launching the program, 800 residential and commercial customers (3.2 percent) had enlisted. The utility's original goal for the program was to enlist 5 percent of customers by the end of June 2004, but it expects to exceed that goal much sooner if residents continue to enlist at a high rate. “I didn't expect this kind of response from the community,” Enerio says. “I knew that the community was environmentally aware, but to get this response rate was pretty phenomenal.”

CPAU has applied to the San Francisco-based Center for Resource Solutions, a national accreditation body for renewable energy programs, to obtain the Green-e certification for Palo Alto Green. The certification will verify the utility's green energy purchases and the environmental benefit of the program.