A kerfuffle has broken out in the green blogosphere. The state of play thus far:

  • Steve Johnson noticed the new "Wind Power Card" from Renewable Choice Energy, available now at a Whole Foods near you. He is not a big fan:

    When you buy a card, you don’t get any wind-generated electricity delivered to your home however. In fact, all you get is a card that doubles as a refrigerator magnet. Actually, you don’t even get any credits, it’s just a word they use to give you a sense of getting something from your money. The money you spend goes towards helping Renewable Choice Energy buy and sell electricity.

    The cards are not even an investment, because you won’t get any material value in return. It’s all going to help another company get rich. Most companies seek investors to secure capital. But in this case, RCE is asking people for free money under the context of doing your part to help the environment.

  • The mighty BoingBoing (1.7 million unique visitors a day) picked it up and added some RCE bashing.
  • Over at Sustainablog, Jeff responded with some umbrage, defending RCE.
  • The mighty BoingBoing responded in kind, and several readers chimed in. Consensus: wind credits may be OK, but the cards are deceptive.
  • Shea Gunther, founder of RCE, pointed to a post about how wind credits work, and another with pictures of how the cards are presented in Whole Foods.
  • CitizenGreen has thoughts; GroovyGreen weighs in; so does Ecospree; Jeff again; Treehugger too.

What to make of all this?

As I see it, there are two separable questions. OK, three, but the first two go together.

First: Are wind power credits legit, and furthermore, is Renewable Choice Energy’s for-profit business model legit?

Second: Are the cards designed and sold in such a way as to deceive customers about what they’re getting?

On the first question, here’s how I see it: when you buy a wind power credit, you are in effect making a voluntary donation to wind-energy producers. In their FAQ, RCE disagrees:

10. Is this really just a donation?
Most definitely not. Better energy, just like any other commodity, costs more than lower quality energy. The extra amount you pay for wind power goes directly to the wind farms to help ensure that wind energy can be competitive in today’s market and to encourage development for the future.

You voluntarily pay an extra amount, which goes to wind farms. In English we call that a donation.

Say I bought a cup of coffee. As I was leaving, someone approached me and said, "hey, if you give me an extra quarter on top of what you paid for that coffee, I’ll send it to an organic coffee collective in Costa Rica." Now, I might support organic coffee, so I might give him the quarter, but am I really “buying better coffee”? Not in any common sense understanding. I’m not buying anything, not getting anything of commensurate value in return, except the satisfaction of doing a good thing. That’s what wind credits are about — the satisfaction of knowing that some tiny increment of wind power will be added to the grid, displacing dirty energy.

At present, wind power costs more to produce than dirty energy. Your purchase of wind credits offsets that disparity a little bit. Nonetheless, it’s an act of altruism — or if you prefer, civic duty.

RCE plays the role of broker — classic middle man. It buys credits from the wind-energy producers and sells them to you, the consumer. It makes the process easy for you. In exchange for that service, it takes out a chunk of the donation. That just strikes me as a commission, what you’d pay any broker. It’s a perfectly conventional business model, though perhaps not destined to be a successful one.

Anyway, I could be wrong about all that, but it’s my basic impression.

It’s not an ideal set-up. I’d certainly prefer legal, regulatory, or legislative action that evens the energy playing field — a carbon tax, or boosted renewable energy portfolios. But in the absence of that, asking civic-minded citizens to chip in is harmless. If nothing else, it shows that there’s interest in and support for renewables. If you don’t want RCE skimming off your credits, well, find the credits yourself and buy them direct.

wind power cardsNow. The cards. Are they deceptive?

I can see where BoingBoing is coming from on this. The cards are the exact size and shape of credit, discount, or stored-value cards. They have a dollar figure on them. A careless consumer could easily get the impression they were buying credit toward their own power bill — exchanging money for something of equal value, rather than simply donating money.

Of course, the customer would have to be seriously careless, as there’s an enormous poster hovering over the display, spelling out the deal. But maybe some day the poster will be gone. Who knows how the cards will be packaged down the road.

Thing is, RCE is trying to commodify wind credits — make them just another item you throw in your cart at the store. There’s nothing wrong with that (unless you’re philosophically opposed to wind credits). In fact, it’s inevitable.

But it doesn’t need to be a card, and if the card confuses or misleads some people, why cling to it? It would be just as easy to make it some kind of certificate or lapel pin or colored bracelet or … anything. "Thanks for helping to support wind power — here’s your commemorative engraved pen." This is a fuss that didn’t need to happen.