“If you look at it this way, the subsidy isn’t really for the Wilsons’ house so much as it is a jobs training program for the installers who will grow and get better so that when they do the Wilsons’ neighbors’ houses, they’re all cheaper, too.”
Power companies are helping as well. In recent weeks, Tami Wilson says, PPL told the Wilsons they’d get a $5,000 company rebate. In addition, because Pennsylvania law requires electric utilities to generate a certain percentage of its electricity through renewable sources like solar or wind, PPL actually pays the Wilsons for generating the power they use at home. Essentially, their solar electric system has turned the Wilsons into contractors for the utilities.
Ironically, it’s the carbon offsets, the smallest component of the Wilsons’ solar payoff plan, that has generated the most fascination in the United States and around the world, where greenhouse gas emissions have been capped under the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to fight climate change—which the United States didn’t sign.
“They’re a mechanism that uses the market and entrepreneurial spirit to accomplish emissions reductions in places you couldn’t otherwise regulate through policies,” says Michael Gillenwater, executive director and dean of the nonprofit Greenhouse Gas Management Institute, based in Washington, D.C. “Basically, if I help you reduce your emissions, I can pay you some money in the form of an offset.”
A typical offset project might be a mine in Siberia emitting excess methane. European companies pay to help the mine cut its pollution, and are credited as if they had reduced their own by an equal amount. The reasoning is that emission reductions in the Siberian mine can be implemented much more quickly and cheaply than the European company could accomplish in its own facilities.
“Climate change is a global phenomenon, so it doesn’t matter where you reduce the emissions so long as you reduce them,” Gillenwater says.
Selling the savings
The company the Wilsons used, New York-based My Emissions Exchange, so far has signed up more than 2,000 participants, says project manager Paul Herrgesell. The typical family doesn’t have a solar electric system, so they won’t amass credits as fast as the Wilsons.
“The Wilsons have gone full bore, but typically we advise people to go slow and look at incremental changes they can make,” Herrgesell says. But for those who make a significant investment, “A typical family of four might save $400 to $500 in energy costs and generate two or three credits in a year.”
An Ohio company that builds machines for recycling aluminum, Molten Metal Equipment Innovations Inc., bought the Wilsons’ first carbon credit.
“For us, it’s just a nice little added incentive,” Tami said. “For most people, anything to help them focus on cutting their energy usage is a good thing. And maybe it’s the final push to motivate them to do what we’ve done.”
Chris Carroll is a writer from Maryland.