Electricity provided to Northwest homes and businesses comes from numerous generating facilities as far away as Colorado and Arizona.

Think of several streams feeding into a pond. The streams are different generating plants delivering power to the pond, or "power pool."

Most traditional power generation relies on burning fossil fuel, even in many areas of the West.

When renewable power displaces traditional sources of power, a shift occurs in the energy mix or energy pool, resulting in less fossil fuel being burned and fewer pollutants released.

Renewable energy comes from wind, solar, geothermal and low-impact hydro resources.

Other cleaner methods of generating electricity may also qualify as renewable power.

Biomass facilities burn wood, agricultural wastes or methane gases from landfills instead of fossil fuel, preventing the release of methane (CH4).

How your electricity is generated depends on where you live and what mix of energy resources is in your utility's power pool. In the United States, the majority of electricity is produced through burning fossil fuels. Contact your utility to learn more about the electricity you receive.

Your utility may have a green power program, or you may have the option of installing a renewable energy producing system on your own residence.

If these are not options (no matter who your utility is), you can buy Green Tags, which are created when wind or solar power, or other renewable energy, is substituted for traditional power. Purchases of Green Tags help replace fossil fuel generators by building more wind turbines, solar facilities and other producers of renewable energy. In the Northwest, Green Tags are available from Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF).

Renewable energy is still generally more expensive to generate than is electricity from fossil fuel facilities. However, renewable power is considered to be a higher quality product. BEF reports that their customers "would pay a more for a car that would run cleaner, quieter, more reliably and more safely," and that they would do the same for the electricity they buy.

Each time a City of Ashland Electric Department customer purchases a Green Tag, BEF directs a portion of the purchase to local renewable energy projects. Funds thus generated are used to install solar systems, and to teach Ashland students about solar energy. From 2000-2002, more than 260 citizens and businesses generated nearly $30,000 to finance local solar projects such as photovoltaic installations at the Civic Center, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Southern Oregon University.

The State of Oregon offers energy loans for different projects to encourage the transition to renewables. Some Northwest utilities are establishing their own innovative programs to encourage the transition to renewable energy.

A 1999 Oregon law requires the state's two largest investor-owned utilities (Pacific Power and Portland General Electric) to collect a three percent "public purposes charge" from their customers. The law created the Energy Trust of Oregon, an independent nonprofit organization whose mission is to change how Oregonians produce and use energy.

Through innovative programs, the Energy Trust invests in efficient technologies and renewable resources that develop new sources of clean energy, help Oregonians lower their energy bills, and stimulate the economy.

The Energy Trust also administers gas-conservation programs for residential and commercial customers of NW Natural. A separate portion of the public-purpose funding is dedicated to energy conservation efforts in low-income housing energy assistance and K-12 schools.

By 2012, ETO's goal is to help meet 10 percent of Oregon's energy requirements through renewable energy sources. These savings are expected to offset the need for one or two new large conventional power plants.

Making electricity by burning fossil fuels is the largest industrial source of air pollution in the country. The American Lung Association reports that air pollution from electricity production costs the nation $20 billion per year in health care impacts.

Through normal activities of using electricity, heating a home and driving a car, the average U.S. household produces more than 17 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other pollutants every year.

Human activities are adding about 7 billion metric tons of carbon per year into the atmosphere. The oceans and land vegetation absorb about half. The other half remains in the earth's atmosphere for 100 years or longer. This is what is causing the rapid buildup of CO2, a buildup that surpasses nature's ability to take CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere, and dwarfs natural fluctuations.

Most scientists feel that the warming trend caused by the CO2 buildup affects our everyday activities through disruptive weather patterns, such as drought in some areas or floods in others.

Northwest utilities are proposing forward-thinking programs in order to generate clean, renewable electricity in homes and businesses around the region. These programs, they feel, can save money and help create a stable energy supply for the future.

• Jennifer Barker is the director of EORenew/SolWest Fair. She may be reached at 575-3633 and at info@solwest.org. Or visit (www.solwest.org). The next SolWest Fair is July 28-30.

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