'Green' gas plans reduce carbon footprint - at a price

Natural gas, already more climate friendly than electricity for heating homes, can be even greener with the purchase of carbon offsets. (File photo / May 17, 2013)

(An earlier version of this post included incorrect information about Maryland Gas & Electric, its pricing and whether it offers a "green" gas plan involving carbon offsets. The Sun regrets the errors.)


(Another in an occasional series of guest posts by GreenLaurel.com blogger Laurel Peltier)

Marylanders have a choice in purchasing electricity for their homes to buy "green" power generated by wind turbines. They don't have as many options when it comes to natural gas for heating and cooking, but there is one company offering consumers a convenient if slightly pricier way to reduce the climate impact of their fuel choice -- through carbon offsets.


What is a carbon offset?

A carbon offset is when you pay for greenhouse gas reductions elsewhere equal to the amount of those gases you’re generating from a particular activity or purchase. 

Greenhouse gases (chiefly carbon dioxide and methane) are the byproducts of burning fossil fuels. Here in Maryland, 39 percent of the greenhouse gases we generate come from making electricity, 33 percent from transportation, 16 percent from heating homes and businesses and 2 percent from disposing of trash. The remainder is produced directly by industry and agriculture.

Offsets come in two flavors: projects that reduce greenhouse gases, such as planting trees, or projects that generate emission-free energy, such as solar or wind. 

Why buy an offset?

Carbon offsets are one piece of a two-piece puzzle. The first step is to reduce your carbon footprint to a minimum – say, by driving fuel-efficient cars, making airtight homes, using Energy Star appliances, or by driving less, to name some options. Then, you offset, or cancel out, the unavoidable emissions from driving, riding and flying and from heating, cooling and lighting your home.

Scientists have determined that the buildup of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere has increased global average temperatures 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880.  According to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the hottest ten years all occurred in the past twelve years. It’s getting hotter faster.

Because Maryland’s energy utilities were de-regulated in 1999, consumers can choose alternative suppliers for their electricity and natural gas. Nearly one-quarter of Maryland homes have switched their electricity and/or gas suppliers.

All this consumer choice means that greener products exist for the electricity needed to cool your home (nicely explained by B’More Green) and now two options are available to offset the natural gas used to heat your home. Under these plans, you can buy carbon offsets that cancel out the greenhouse gases generated by your natural gas usage.

Unlike green electricity prices, where rates can be lower than fossil-fuel generated electricity, you’ll pay a premium for switching to “green natural gas”.  At today’s rates, switching to a natural gas supplier with carbon offsets would cost the average Marylander anywhere from $20 to $100* annually, a small cost to cancel out nearly one-quarter of your greenhouse gas emissions. 

Option #1: CleanSteps® Carbon Offsets - Washington Gas Energy Services

This product is available to BGE and Washington Gas customers. If you switch your natural gas to CleanSteps® Carbon Offsets you’ll lock in a fixed rate for one or two years. Read the fine print, as there is an early termination fee for leaving before your contract expires.

“We’re excited to offer a unique eco-product that fills a need for natural gas customers to conveniently buy local carbon offset projects that reduce greenhouse gases where our customers live,” according to WGES President Harry Warren.

If you switch to the green natural gas product, based on your natural gas usage CleanSteps® Carbon Offsets will invest some of your cash directly into 3 certified and local carbon offset programs explained below.  

Chesapeake Carbon Fund: Through a partnership with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, 10,000 trees have been planted within the watershed. “This fund is an innovative way to get private funds for projects and we’re pleased how well it’s worked and plan to replicate the concept,” according to Dr. Beth McGee, CBF’s Senior Scientist.