Dear Umbra,

My power company (Florida Power and Light) sent me a letter asking me to choose its Sunshine Energy program, which, for an additional $9.75 a month, helps support the building of a 150-kilowatt solar facility in Florida. Do you think I should do it?

Coral Springs, Fla.

Dearest Linda,

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And I am herewith going to foist my plans for 2005 upon all the rest of you: They involve deemphasizing insignificant widgets and reemphasizing energy conservation, greenhouse-gas reduction, and overall efficiency improvements in our daily lives.

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Won’t you please fund me?

Photo: National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Now that I’ve answered your question in the affirmative, Linda, let me shed a little, um, power and light on the situation. According to my understanding of the Sunshine Energy web propaganda, your 10 bucks would not actually go toward building a solar facility. Rather, your money would go toward buying “tradable renewable energy credits.” That’s not bad, it’s just not what you understood.

Non-Floridians should start paying attention to this column now, too, because anybody can buy tradable renewable energy credits, aka Green Tags. States, businesses, individuals, and school classrooms all can join in the fun. The good thing about the Green Tags concept is that it requires us to do what many environmentalists have been wanting to do for years: count damage or improvement to the environment as an economic impact. The bad thing is that the concept is, I find, confusing. Our basic activities (cooking our food, heating our homes) lead to tens of thousands of pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions per household every year, but many of us cannot currently opt to buy renewable energy from our utility, because such energy sources are limited. Green Tags allow us to use our utility’s non-eco-friendly power, but mathematically buy our way back down to zero total emissions.

Stay with me here. Remember, our system is: Capitalism. Let me give you an example of it at work in the renewable-energy sector here in the non-sunshine state where I live. The Washington State School for the Blind has a righteous building with PV panels that generate solar energy. Through imaginative economics, the generated energy is divided into two commodities: one is the energy itself, the second is the environmental benefits of the energy. The school sells these two commodities separately. The first goes into the power grid and is mixed up with nuclear, hydro, gas, whatever; it is no longer special, it is just energy. The second, packaged as Green Tags, is purchased by individuals or entities who are causing bad emissions and wish to zero out their impact — Florida Power and Light, for example. To reduce its emissions and give customers like yourself the option of supporting green energy, the company entered the tradable-renewable-energy-credit game.

If you like, Linda, you could skip straight over your utility company’s offer and zero out all of your personal emissions by buying your own Green Tags. The benefit of joining FPL’s project is that you send the message that you want green energy — and the company promises to install 150 kW worth of photovoltaic solar panels on the roofs of existing buildings for every 10,000 people who join the Sunshine Energy program. The (environmental) downside is that the company might not be buying enough Green Tags on your behalf — but you could always make up the difference yourself. Use the Green Tags carbon calculator to learn how many pounds of CO2 you produce in a year and how many Green Tags would zero you out. It’s a little sobering.