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Q. Dear Umbra,

I’ve been hearing about carbon offsets for awhile and even have purchased some for my car emissions through Terrapass. But I just got an email from my local power company saying that I can pay to offset my own carbon emissions at the low rate of just $8 per month. Is this a good idea? I hear such conflicting stories about the “greening” of coal power plants. How do I know what they are doing with the money?

Mary B.
Winston-Salem, N.C.

A. Dearest Mary,

businessman vacationIs your power company partying in the tropics thanks to you?If a utility is offering carbon offsets or “green power” to their customers, details are usually available on the utility’s web site. A customer must then wade through the self-congratulatory text on the site and determine whether or not the utility is actually taking Acapulco vacations with their $8 a month.

Don’t put too much emphasis on this being a power company issue, though — carbon offsets are a puzzle no matter how and where you buy them. There are a variety of “certifiers” and ratings for offsets, and some generally accepted ideas about what makes an offset project acceptable, but as of yet no overarching body with one stamp of approval.

Offsets themselves are an interesting and contentious issue, as you may have seen in these pages. (Check out our recent special series on offsets for a taste.) I got a bit harrumphy about offsets this past weekend, as I drove past a car with a boasting bumpersticker. Not that I could throw any stones (though we did have five people in the car, hooray). I ranted for a while, but am now prepared to offer a calm assessment of how we might all view offsets: Purchasing an individual carbon offset from a company, which then supports renewable energy development, is great. It is a wonderful chance to financially support projects that would not otherwise be able to get up and running. It does not erase whatever emissions we are emitting. So driving around in an SUV with a “My emissions are compensated for” kind of bumpersticker is … is … is — ooh! I’m getting agitated again. Let’s just say I think it misleads the uninformed.

If we think of our offset purchases as a charitable contribution to renewable energy development, then the question about whether we purchase them gets a little clearer. Without worrying too much about the financial logistics of green power credits (though they are clearly explained here by moi) we can simply ask: Will my money help create new, long-term projects that otherwise would not have happened (also called “additionality”), and are these projects approved and vetted by somebody? There are other questions, too (a good introduction can be found at CORE) but these are the basics. The answer should be yes.

In North Carolina you have an unusual opportunity to support renewable power generation in your very own state. NC GreenPower is your statewide non-profit green power program, supported and created by your state government, power companies, and fellow citizens. Utilities can offer offsets to consumers such as yourself, then pass the fees over to NC GreenPower, which then uses about a quarter of the money for administration and gives the rest as production incentives to renewable power producers. The idea is to slowly build up North Carolina’s renewable energy capacity through what amounts to a small grant system. I found all this out by following the trail from Duke Energy. It all looks legitimate. And if you hate your power company and their coalish ways, you can support NC GreenPower directly.