Women embrace 'green' wave

The Baltimore Sun

Step inside the "breathe books" store in Hampden and owner Susan Weis will show you her Himalayan salt scrub, aromatic massage oils and tomes on meditation. Or you could sprawl out on the silky red cushions and take a class on how to communicate with angels and spirits.

That's what she's selling. But more than anything, Weis is proud of what she's buying: "green" electricity. She and six other women business owners on 36th Street in the North Baltimore neighborhood recently signed a contract to pay about 10 percent more for their electricity, with the extra cash going to subsidize the wind power industry.

"Being New Age is about loving the planet, loving Mother Earth, and we want to raise the vibrational energy of the planet and each other," Weis said yesterday, after the women announced their energy plan. "I am looking out for the health of the earth as much as my own health."

This was not the vibe on what's called "The Avenue" in Hampden a decade ago. The blue-collar neighborhood's main drag was a careworn strip of second-hand furniture stores and thrift shops, with a few artsy joints such as the Fat Elvis gift store.

But in the past few years, the number of organic and New Age-style businesses here has exploded. Many of the new shops are owned by women who share an ecological consciousness. There's Sprout: An Organic Salon, ReNew Organic Day Spa, Red Tree Baltimore, Uptown Dog, Doubledutch Boutique, and Baltimore Green Construction.

Because their owners say they're concerned about global warming, they decided to become the first business collective in the city to pay extra to encourage clean electricity.

The seven businesses signed a contract with a Rockville-based company called Clean Currents, which will take the extra 10 percent that they pay for their power this year and give it to wind-power developers with the hope the money will stimulate more pollution-free energy.

"When you combine women power with green power, it's an unstoppable movement, and not even global warming can stand in the way," said Gary Skulnik, president of Clean Currents.

Skulnik said it would be physically impossible to provide electricity from wind farms to these seven buildings in Hampden. The number of wind turbines across the nation has jumped in recent years, but they still provide less than 1 percent of the nation's total electricity supply. And the wind farms are mostly in the Midwest, with none in Maryland.

The wires going into the seven shops are providing normal electricity distributed by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which buys power from coal-fired power plants, nuclear generators and energy stations fueled by gas and oil. Because of a state law that requires the use of some alternative energy, about 3.5 percent of BGE's electricity comes from wind, hydroelectric power and other "clean" energy sources, said Mark Case, senior vice president of regulatory affairs for BGE.

The extra money these businesses and 70 others across the region provide to Clean Currents is used to buy what is called "renewable energy certificates." These are pieces of paper that allow people to claim they are buying green power, while sending extra cash subsidies to utilities that generate wind power.

Whether such donations to the wind industry will stop global warming is a matter of debate. But the business owners feel that their small contributions will make a difference, when combined with the efforts of other people around the world.

Rachel Epstein, co-owner of the Sprout hair studio, said her shop does many things to help the environment. The sign out front is fashioned from a recycled sheet of scrap metal. The floors are crafted from fast-growing bamboo, so that trees didn't have to be cut down.

And all of the hair care products - such as their Ginkgo Leaf and Ginseng Root Hair Moisturizing Jelly - are made without artificial chemicals, she said. Yes, she acknowledges, it is more expensive, as is the green electricity.

"But it's not about the money, it's about the future of our ecology," Epstein said. "It' s long-term thinking, not short-term thinking."

Some owners of more traditional businesses in Hampden said they like the influx of all the new age neighbors. John Ruthke, who owns the New System Bakery, said the old-fashioned cakes-and-sweets shop - opened by his grandfather in 1921 - was forced to move from 36th Street around the corner to 3400 Chestnut Ave. when his rent more than tripled.

But at the new location, New System is doing more business than ever because there are more shoppers drawn to the increasingly hip neighborhood. And that creates a good vibe for him and more green for his cash register.

"I don't have a problem with them," he said of the trendy businesses. "The more businesses that are thriving down here, the more people come down here to shop, and that's good for all of us."

Mary Pat Clarke, who has represented the neighborhood on the City Council on and off since 1975, said the street of old-style Baltimore "hons" has embraced the green wave. "Today, Mother Earth is a hon," she said.


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