It began as an attempt to save energy in the face of a massive impending electric-rate increase. But Tami Wilson, 50, and her husband, Randy, 54, soon went much further.
“We didn’t plan all this from the beginning,” says Tami Wilson, showing gray-black solar panels that sprouted last summer on the roof of her house in Harrisburg, Pa. “But step by step, one thing led to another, until we were practically off the grid.”
The Wilsons are pioneers in a brand-new U.S. energy market, one in which households can save money and help the environment by reducing fossil fuel consumption—and actually get paid to do so. In January they likely became the first people in the world to sell what’s called a personal carbon credit.
Experimenting last spring with ways to save electricity, the Wilsons noticed a local newspaper story about a new company called My Emissions Exchange. The start-up company promised not only to help track energy savings, but to add up the amount of pollution avoided as a result, and sell it as carbon credits in the voluntary U.S. carbon offset market. The Wilsons signed up last year and sold their first offset in January for a whopping $21.50–or just over $17 after My Emissions Exchange took its commission.
Sound strange? It is — in the United States, where companies can emit an unlimited amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air. Buying carbon credits is an entirely voluntary form of environmental charity. But in places like the European Union that have placed a cap on carbon emissions, carbon credits (not produced by individual households, however) are bought every day. Companies that fail to reduce their own emissions enough to comply with regulations essentially can pay someone else to do it.
This market-based concept, called “cap-and-trade,” could be coming stateside soon. It was part of President Obama’s campaign platform, and while a bill to cap carbon emissions is stalled in the U.S. Senate, proponents say they’ll keep pushing until Congress passes a law to fight global warming.
But it wasn’t this big picture–global energy markets and climate change–that motivated the Wilsons to begin making alternate energy plans early last year. They were simply focused on what they’d been hearing for months from their local electric company.
For well over a decade, state-ordered rate caps shielded 1.4 million Pennsylvania residents from the steadily rising cost of power as global demand grew. Through 2009, customers of PPL Electric Utilities essentially paid 1990s prices for their electricity, the Allentown, Pa.-based company says. But the rate caps were set to expire on Dec. 31, and the company told its customers to brace for a 30 percent increase.
The Wilsons decided to act. Randy had just retired from the accounts department at a local health insurer, and the couple was also trying to grow a home business. The thought of digging into their pockets to pay 30 percent more than their usual $100 monthly electric bill held little appeal.
They started in the spring of 2009 with the simplest measure they knew—replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents, which use up to 75 percent less electricity than an equally bright traditional bulb.
“Next, we started looking at other things and noticed we were leaving computers on all the time even though they didn’t always need to be on,” Randy Wilson says.
Then the Wilsons started getting serious, purchasing a $25 device called a Kill A Watt that they could hook up to electrical appliances to find out how much energy each was using, or wasting when not in use. They began habitually unplugging unused electrical devices, and got rid of their son’s heated waterbed.
They began watching thermostat settings and moderating their use of energy-guzzling appliances. “I have what you might call a hybrid clothes dryer,” Tami Wilson says.