Photo depicting a hydroelectric dam during the day surrounded by mountains with trees.

The South End Guide to Reducing Our Carbon Footprint: Making Electricity Carbon-Neutral

by Mark Van Streefkerk

Most people probably don’t think about the fact that they’re burning fossil fuels when they flip on a light switch or plug their phone in to charge, but it’s a fact of life — unless you’re getting electricity from Seattle City Light, that is.

While 60% of electricity in the U.S. is derived from fossil fuels like coal, petroleum, and natural gas, Seattle’s electricity is about 85% hydro-powered. City Light owns seven hydropower plants in Washington that provide green, renewable energy that powers our lights, computers, dishwashers, refrigerators, electric cars, and other household appliances. 

“City Light is engaged in preparing for climate change to ensure that we can continue to provide safe, reliable, affordable, and clean electrical services to our customers,” said Crista Chadwick, City Light’s energy advisor supervisor. 

“In 2005 [we were] the first carbon-neutral utility in the nation. Our power remains carbon-free, primarily because we generate about 85% of our power from hydroelectric dams,” she said. 

That’s a big win for our goal of reducing our carbon footprint. (Curious about where the other 15% of power comes from? 6% is “Unspecified,” meaning it’s not required to identify the generating source in the wholesale power marketplace, 5% is nuclear, 4% is wind, and 1% is biogas.) So if you live in Seattle or get your electricity from Seattle City Light, congrats, you already have a head start toward reducing your carbon footprint!

Photo depicting the Boundary Hydroelectric Project dam at night with the lights reflecting off the lake as water falls through the dam.
The Boundary Hydroelectric Project at night. Since Seattle City Light’s mostly hydro-powered electricity is a big win for reducing our carbon footprints, it’s a good idea to electrify as many things as we can, including the heating and cooling of our homes. Photo courtesy of Seattle City Light.

Go Further With Green Up

Go even further with an easy and convenient way to support green energy in the Pacific Northwest: Green Up, a not-for-profit program run by City Light, is a voluntary program where you set your own contribution level, and you can start and stop at any time. When you participate in Green Up, your dollars are used by City Light to purchase renewable energy credits (RECs) on your behalf. 

“RECs purchased from renewable energy sources help support and fund development of those resources …” Chadwick explained, but “those resources do not necessarily connect to City Light’s grid and therefore [it] doesn’t necessarily ‘green’ City Light’s energy mix.” 

However, participating in Green Up does support renewable energy development in areas of the Pacific Northwest that still rely on fossil fuels, as well as new solar projects hosted by local organizations that provide a community service, like schools, community centers, and affordable housing.  

You can participate in the program with a Green Up Match, matching up to 100% of your monthly electricity use with RECs. For example, $1 purchases 100 kilowatt hours (kWh) of green electricity. The average City Light home uses around 600 kWh of electricity per month. In that case, matching would equal a $6 monthly commitment or $12 every two months. You can also decide how much you want to pay by purchasing Green Up Blocks. You can start with $1 per month to add one 100 kWh block to your City Light bill. There are no limits to the number of Green Up Blocks you can buy. 

Find out how you can apply for a Green Up grant to fund renewable energy installation projects or renewable energy education projects for your school, organization, or institution here.

More Energy-Saving Tips 

While the electricity supplied to Seattle-area homes is carbon-neutral, there might still be opportunities for your household to lower your carbon footprint — and save money on your electric bill. 

“In order to reduce climate pollution, prevent soil and groundwater contamination, and improve air quality, a first step customers can take is to consider heating homes and water heating with electricity rather than natural gas or oil,” Chadwick said. 

City Light recommends heating and cooling with ductless heating and cooling systems and using heat pump water heaters. If you’re considering these projects, you might be eligible for a rebate from the City. 

Here are a few more energy-saving tips:

  • Swap out incandescent light bulbs with LED bulbs, and turn out the lights when you leave a room.
  • Unplug your appliances like coffee makers and stereos when not in use. 
  • Set your thermostat to a lower temperature when you’re away from home or sleeping. 
  • Take shorter showers.
  • Upgrade to energy-efficient windows, weatherize your house with weatherstripping and caulking, and insulate your home, which keeps you warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.
  • Add aerators or efficient showerheads to save on hot water use and save on your water bill. 
  • Take a cue from Highland High School students and see if your community center, school, or institution can rally support for sustainable or carbon-neutral energy projects.

This climate change series is made possible with support from Nia Tero.

Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist, freelance writer, and the Emerald’s Arts, Culture, & Community editor. He often writes about restaurants, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter at @VanStreefkerk.

📸 Featured Image: Seattle City Light is the first public utility in the U.S. to become carbon-neutral. A big part of that is because about 85% of power comes from hydropower plants like the Boundary Hydroelectric Project (pictured), a dam in northeastern Washington. Photo courtesy of City Light.

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