The large print on the glossy brochures and flashy websites might say "Buy green energy," but an Illinois utility regulator is considering cracking down on claims of environmental friendliness, saying they can mislead consumers.
Two administrative law judges at the Illinois Commerce Commission recently proposed new rules limiting the ability of retail electric suppliers to market renewable energy as "green" and requiring additional disclosures about where the power comes from.
The requirements laid out in draft rules on green-energy marketing are "a positive step forward," the Illinois attorney general's office said recently.
Renewable energy might seem like a simple concept to grasp, the office has said, but, in fact, it can be confusing to the public.
"As a matter of physics, unless a customer's residence is directly connected to a wind farm or solar panels," electricity suppliers "cannot truthfully claim that they are providing electricity generated from renewable resources," the attorney general's office is quoted as saying in the administrative law judges' proposed order in January.
So, where does "green" energy come from?
"The 'green' component of 'green' power almost assuredly comes from the purchase of" renewable energy credits, or certificates, the attorney general's office said.
The office says it has received complaints that some marketing materials "improperly imply that the power" supplied "comes directly from renewable resources, which is impossible."
That's because once energy hits the grid, whether it comes from coal, solar or wind, it's all just indiscernible electrons flowing into, say, a home, making it impossible to claim that "green" energy is providing electricity, explains Bradley Klein, senior attorney with Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center.
That's where renewable energy credits come in.
The credits represent the legal title to the environmental, social and other nonpower qualities of renewable electricity generation. Each credit or certificate is the equivalent of one megawatt-hour of electricity generated and delivered to the power grid. Renewable-energy credits are an easily traded commodity across state lines.
According to the administrative law judges' proposed rules, retail electric suppliers would be required to disclose the following on their written materials and on their websites:
•The percentage of renewable energy resources used in supplying power to customers.
•The percentage of renewable energy resources generated in Illinois used in supplying power.
•Plans to buy renewable energy resources outside of the state.
Klein, the Environmental Law & Policy Center lawyer, said marketing material touting green energy should explain, among other things, what renewable resource helped to create that credit — whether it be solar in Illinois, wind in Texas, or landfill gas from Arkansas.
"Customers deserve to know where that renewable energy credit is coming from," he said, "because they may have preferences about what types of renewable energy resources they wish to support."
PluginIllinois.org, a commission site on which suppliers post their offers, would also be beefed up to include such information as the percentage of renewable resources from Illinois, proposed rules show.
"Alternative suppliers relying on (renewable energy credits) to market 'green energy' should fully disclose what they're offering and, more importantly, what they're not," the attorney general's office said.
The Illinois Competitive Energy Association opposes the proposed requirement to publicly identify the state of origin of the energy credits.
The association's members consist of alternative retail electric and suppliers whose goal is to beat the big utilities on price, said President Kevin Wright, who is a former ICC chairman. "Heaping on rules that require more disclosure about procurement puts us at a disadvantage," he said.
This week, an updated proposed order is expected to be delivered to the five-person commission that will ultimately decide the case. The date of the vote hasn't yet been set, said commission spokeswoman Danisha Hall.
Other states are also trying to keep consumers from getting duped by various clean-energy claims.
Vermont warned solar panel companies in December against making deceptive claims. With some projects, the solar company would sell the renewable energy credits on the market to give homeowners a better deal on their installations; in such cases, however, the energy used by the homeowner isn't, legally speaking, renewable or solar energy, the Vermont attorney general's office said.
Mark Weitekamper, of Chicago, last April installed nine solar panels on his home that so far have generated about 2 megawatt-hours of electricity.
Weitekamper, whose other environmental efforts include using a plug-in hybrid vehicle and diverting rainwater to garden use, said he finds the concept of renewable energy credits "a bit convoluted" and said he probably wouldn't sell any that he is generating because he has "no idea how or where to begin."
But Weitekamper said he is very pleased with his panels, and they're "exceeding expectations of the amount electricity produced."
Weitekamper, a general contractor, said many products that used to be considered green in the building industry are becoming standard, but he has noticed that "some utility resellers are knocking on doors and saying their electricity service is green, when they are just resellers."