Here are 3 ways to find out where your electricity comes from

NEW YORK - There are few resources more important than energy. Sure, you may die if you don't eat for days. But your phone will die if you go too long without charging it. Energy feeds tech, the internet, city infrastructure, refrigerators, lights. You get the idea. Yet unlike our other common needs, such as food, energy sources aren't exactly front of mind for most people. 

"I think a lot of people don't put a lot of bandwidth into thinking about this part of their lives," said Richard McMahon, the SVP of energy supply and finance at Edison Electric Institute, a trade group that represents investor-owned electric companies in the US. 

It makes sense. For most Americans, electricity is always there, and in many locations, there's not much of a choice involved. You sign up with a utility when you move into a new residence and pay your bills when they're due. 

But there's an important reality that indifference eschews: In 2018, a third of the energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions in the US came from the electric power sector, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). 

A good chunk of that is from the residential sector, which consistently uses more energy than commercial customers, per EIA data.

Just as many people exercise choice when they eat, you typically also have a choice when it comes to your energy supply. That's not to say your current offering isn't what you want, or that switching will be easy or affordable, but "if you're a customer and want power with a certain attribute," McMahon said, "you can pretty much get it wherever you are." 

But first, you need to know the energy mix you have right now. As it turns out, it's not so straightforward. At all.

This brief guide may help. 

For some utility providers, you can find out if it publishes the energy mix online. Dominion Energy, which serves Idaho, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming, provides this information in a colored graphic. 

"Once you figure out who your utility is you can figure out what mix of resources they use," said Heidi Ratz, an electricity markets researcher at the World Resources Institute.

But not all utilities publish this information.

It has to do with their role in the grid. Some utility companies are vertically integrated; they generate power through nuclear plants or wind farms and distribute those electrons directly to their customers. Other utilities just distribute the power that different companies produce. 

Consider Consolidated Edison, or Con Ed, which distributes energy to parts of New York City. While reporting this story, Business Insider could not find information about the utility's energy mix online. When reached for comment, a spokesperson said, "we're indifferent to where it comes from."

That's because, in New York, distribution utilities like Con Ed often buy energy through a wholesale marketplace.

Take a look at this map. If you live in one of the colored regions, your electricity is sold on a wholesale market regulated by an organization called a regional transmission organization (RTO) or independent system operator (ISO). Distribution utilities like Con Ed often buy their energy through these markets, based on availability and cost. 

Still, it's pretty easy to figure out where your energy comes from. Just look up the ISO or RTO website (such as NYISO or CAISO). Usually, these organizations will provide energy supply information in near-real time. 

That's exactly what Con Edison (which buys energy on the NYISO marketplace) suggested. As of Friday morning, roughly 40% of the energy on the market place was natural gas or other fossil fuels, 34% was nuclear, and about 22% was hydro. 

If you live in another region governed by an ISO or RTO, such as in most of California, you can do the same thing. Like NYISO, CAISO has a dashboard that shows (again, as of Friday morning) about 36% of the energy on the market comes from natural gas and more than 20% comes from renewables. 

In the map linked above, you'll notice that some of the ISOs and RTOs like MISO encompass enormous regions. That means that even if you figure out where the energy in your market comes from, it's not going to be geographically specific. But there are a couple of ways to drill down even further. 

The Environmental Protection Agency has a straightforward tool called Power Profiler. You can enter your zip code to see the fuel mix in your area. But it's not perfect. The data are from 2016 and, in some regions of the country like the upper Midwest, they aren't much more localized. 

The World Resources Institute also has a tool that allows you to see the electricity mix by state, based on 2017 data from EIA. These numbers represent power generation, not the electricity actually flowing into your sockets, but they offer a rough idea of what energy resources are operating in your state. 

One option is to check with your utility to see if it has a "green power" offering. Over 600 utilities across the country have one, according to the Climate Reality Project, though they often come at a slightly higher cost. It's typically on the scale of just a few more cents per kilowatt-hour. 

There are also independent, consumer-facing companies like Arcadia and Green Mountain Energy that allow you to source renewable energy, by virtually connecting you to community solar projects or purchasing Renewable Energy Certificates, or RECs, on your behalf. 

"RECs measure an investment in a clean energy resource," Ratz said, in an email. "The goal of putting that resource on the grid is to push out the need for dirtier resources."

The good news: Even if you do nothing, your energy mix will get cleaner. Coal production has fallen to lows not seen since the 1980s, while renewable electricity generation has doubled since 2008. So whether you like it or not, you'll be roped into the clean energy boom one way or another. 


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