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Cashing in on cutting carbon at home

With carbon credits to offset home consumption and Web sites tracking just how much energy home appliances use, growing numbers of people are joining the battle against greenhouse gases

By Mira Oberman  /  AFP , CHICAGO

A pair of metal sculptures is seen on an iceberg near the town of Uummannaq in western Greenland on Friday. Ap Verheggen, a 45-year-old artist from The Hague, said he had built the swirling metal sculptures, which represent a dog sled, to highlight the impact of a warmer climate on the Inuit people, who struggle to move around on thinning ice.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Can the promise of a free cupcake or some cold hard cash work better than dire predictions of dying polar bears and rising sea levels at getting people to cut their carbon footprint?

Two US-based startup companies certainly hope so.

Energy brokers in White Plaines, New York, have launched what they hope will be a global exchange platform for selling carbon offset credits based on cutting home energy use.

They sold the first credit in January for US$21.50 — yielding a US$4.30 brokerage fee — and expect to sell the second in the coming weeks.

“It’s an experiment,” said Marissa Miraval, campaign manager for MyEex, which runs myemissionsexchange.com.

The concept is simple: Finger wagging hasn’t convinced most people to turn the lights off when they leave the room, but paying them a few bucks for putting a sweater on instead of turning up the heat might just do the trick.

Get enough people on board and it can have a real impact on greenhouse gas emissions, and those 20 percent brokerage fees will start to add up.

So far, about 2,000 households have signed up and MyEex is working to get its method of using utility bills to track reductions certified as a legitimate carbon offset.

It’s not clear whether the system will actually encourage people to cut their energy use or merely reward them for decisions they had already made, but Miraval said it’s worth a try.

“The carbon credit — that’s like the sprinkles on the icing,” said Randy Wilson, who earned MyEex’s first carbon credit after outfitting his Pennsylvania home with solar panels.

Wilson and his wife decided to get off the grid last year after their electricity company announced that rates were going to go up 30 to 40 percent.

They threw out their son’s waterbed, switched to compact fluorescent light bulbs and started unplugging things like computers when they weren’t being used.

Then they installed a US$58,000 solar panel system that slashed their electricity bill from US$120 a month to zero.

Tax credits brought the cost down to US$22,000 and Wilson is earning about US$2,700 a year selling renewable energy certificates to area utility companies.

He figures it will have paid for itself in six years. And it saved enough energy in the first six months to power a television for 25,000 hours.

“The whole concept of saving money and getting paid to do it, that just boggles me,” he said. “And when you think of the potential out there, there’s hundreds of millions of homes that could at least earn one carbon credit a year.”

About 17 percent of total US greenhouse gas emissions come from people’s homes: heating, cooling, electricity and the noxious fumes emitted from decomposing household garbage.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that adds up to four tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per person every year.

Joanna Smith was amazed at how easy it was to cut back on the electricity bills in her tiny New York apartment after joining Earth Aid.

The Washington-based company offers members points that can be cashed in for rewards like free spa treatments and discounts on everything from yoga classes to energy audits and organic baby clothes.

More importantly for Smith, it tracks utility bills and sends e-mails alerting her to how much energy she’s using when she forgets to turn off the lights or unplug things.

“Because of the electronic billing that I have, I don’t even see a bill anymore,” Smith said. “I really had no concept of my consumption prior to Earth Aid.”

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