If you want to support renewable energy generation, there’s not a whole lot of personal recourse you can take beyond either choosing to pay a “green pricing” premium to your local utility in exchange for clean energy, or–in deregulated states–choosing to buy your energy directly from a clean-energy provider (like Green Mountain Energy in Vermont).
A new startup, Inspire, is throwing its hat into the clean-energy supply ring and offering a different option: a Netflix-style subscription to wind power. Unlike paying a green premium or switching energy providers, the cost of an Inspire monthly membership doesn’t fluctuate in accordance with your energy usage. Rather, you pay a monthly fee based on the cost of wind energy per kilowatt-hour, adjusted for your past energy-use patterns, the number of people in your home, weather in your location, and square footage of your home. Because Inspire has made deals with utilities where it operates, you still get a bill from the same company you get currently, which oversees delivery of your energy, but the flat-rate Inspire charge replaces your current utility charge. An accompanying app delivers real-time analysis of your energy use, and recommendations for where you can conserve power. “It’s a fundamental shift in the payment mechanism for energy,” Inspire COO Blake Lasuzzo said in a video on Mashable.
The catch: An Inspire subscription does not guarantee that your home will become, overnight, powered exclusively by wind energy. Rather, what Inspire guarantees is that for every megawatt-hour of energy you use, the start-up will purchase a Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) from a local or regional wind farm. RECs are tradable commodities that renewable energy sources sell alongside the tangible energy commodities to increase the value of renewables, and establish for them a stronger foothold in the marketplace. Purchasing RECs, in a sense, means that you’re buying the environmental benefits of renewables, and putting pressure on utilities to integrate a greater share of clean energy sources into the mix of energy in the grid. For the company, the bet is that the cost of wind power will continue to decline, making your locked-in subscription price more profitable for the company.
Shortly after college, Inspire CEO Patrick Maloney started working at a Philadelphia-based energy company. The experience, he tells Fast Company, “left me a bit frustrated with the market, and with the overall industry.” The energy industry accounts for 35% of the U.S.’ greenhouse gas emissions, and Maloney adds, “it’s unbelievably antiquated in nature, dominated by government-sanctioned monopolies that really have almost no incentive to innovate and to drive a transition to renewables.”
And there was little room, Maloney noticed, for energy consumers to exercise choices based on their values. When he left the energy company in 2010, he began to think about how to create a new utility, driven by technology and consumer needs and choice. Looking at the transportation industry, specifically at how on-demand ventures like Lyft and Uber so quickly overtook taxis, Maloney says that those companies “were able to drive rapid, irreversible change by making the consumer king, and figuring out how to develop technologies that reshape the customer experience.” He founded Inspire in 2013 as a way to bring a sense of agency to consumers facing down bills from an industry they do not ethically support.
And while Inspire is tackling the complicated issue of trying to boost the share of renewable energy on the grid in the five states in which it currently operates (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey), the consumer-facing side of things is pretty straightforward. On the site, you can enter your ZIP code to see if you qualify for the subscription service; if you do, you’ll enter your address and current utility account number to get a quote. (Obviously, the quote fluctuates, but in Pennsylvania, for instance, where the average residential electrical bill is $107, an Inspire subscription can be as low as $59, showing the drastically lower cost of wind power than non-renewables).
The startup is still in the early stages, though Maloney says they hope to scale nationally. RECs purchased by the company on behalf of Inspire members–who are approaching six figures, Maloney says–have had the equivalent impact of adding 85 energy from 85 wind turbines into the grid. He estimates that Inspire could reach over 100 million people with its subscription service–the same thing as putting over 177,000 new wind turbines into the grid.