These days, you can’t be green unless you’re in the black. Unfortunately, that’s a luxury many Michigan residents and businesses can’t afford — as much as they might want it. That seems to be the problem with DTE Energy’s GreenCurrents, a program that the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center says is little more than an attempt to look energy conscious. While GreenCurrents customers believe they are paying a small premium for renewable energy, most of their money has actually gone toward overhead, causing many to cry “greenwash.” As well-intentioned as DTE may be, it and Americans must realize that it costs more than a couple extra bucks to build an alternative energy infrastructure.
Launched by DTE Energy last year, GreenCurrents is a program that allows customers to purchase renewable energy to power their homes and businesses or match their non-renewable usage starting at just $2.50 per month. While roughly 14,000 customers in southeast Michigan think they’re paying for alternatives like solar and wind power, 85 percent of that money covered marketing and administrative costs in 2007. And instead of putting the rest toward developing its own technologies, DTE used it to purchase renewable energy certificates, compensating for its own inefficiency by investing in other companies producing alternative energy.
In an era of heightened environmental consciousness, utility companies like DTE need to be shifting to alternative energy sources. But with Michigan’s economy falling on hard times, it’s also hard to convince people to pay more, even to protect the environment. Therefore, DTE chose to make its GreenCurrents program look affordable and, thus, attractive to consumers.
The problem, though, is that DTE’s small price hike is hardly enough to cover the high costs of building new infrastructure. Usually companies would share that kind of burden with their customers, especially when the change is in demand — as it is in southeastern Michigan. But tacking all of those costs onto consumers’ bills would have killed this program. As a result, there’s not much of a change to speak of.
DTE’s greening problems are emblematic of America’s. DTE’s customers want renewable energy. Renewable energy costs money. DTE doesn’t have that money. This is the same situation that exists with many environmental initiatives, from fuel efficiency standards to tax-and-trade caps.
The solution requires a cooperative effort and a dose of reality. In this case, that means DTE is going to have to charge more, and its customers are going to have to pay more. It’s an unfortunate reality.
Creative solutions shouldn’t be discounted here either. As city of Ann Arbor’s Energy Commission and the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center note, DTE has an obligation to provide consumers the product they are buying: green energy. These organizations advocate long-term purchasing agreement with local alternative energy developers like wind farmers as one way to provide alternative energy and stimulate the local economy.
The underlying truth is that Americans want to pay their extra $2.50 a month and believe they are transforming our energy crisis. It isn’t. It will take a lot more effort from citizens, companies and our government to do that.