updated 7/31/2006 11:24:21 AM ET 2006-07-31T15:24:21

The Rev. Francis Galles lives on a retired priest's income, but he doesn't mind paying an extra 60 bucks a year to make sure some of the energy he uses comes from the wind turbines churning across southern Minnesota.

"It's not much. I'd pay more," he said.

Galles is part of a small but growing group of consumers who, despite an era of high energy costs, are willing to pay a premium to support renewable energy.

"I think we need to have a vision when it comes to energy, and at the present time our government doesn't have much of a vision," said Galles, who lives in Preston in the southeastern corner of the state. "So, I do this for my part."

About 23,000 Minnesota households last year paid as much as an additional $150 for electricity, up 30 percent from last year, according to the state Commerce Department.

"Think of it as your charitable contribution to the environment," said Mike Taylor, a program administrator for the agency.

The trend is upward elsewhere, too. Utilities in 36 states offer some form of green pricing, and last year 430,000 households bought green power -- up 20 percent from a year earlier, the U.S. Energy Department reported.

Besides increasing the amount of clean energy being used, such programs educate consumers about renewable energy sources, said John Kelly, director of research and economics for the American Public Power Association, which represents public utilities.

"There is this continual education effort, so you have a few progressive states and utilities that kind of lead the way," he said.

Some environmental groups, however, wonder about the ultimate effectiveness of such volunteer efforts.

J. Drake Hamilton, the science policy director for the environmental group Fresh Energy, said green pricing strategies are important because, for the first time, consumers are having a say in the source of their energy.

But she said laws requiring utilities to generate more green energy would do more to transfer energy production from coal and other fossil fuels. The group failed in a push for such a law this year in Minnesota.

"We support green pricing, but if you really want to create jobs and cleaner air and sustainable renewable energy, you need public policy to back it up," Hamilton said.

Since 2001, Minnesota's utilities have been required to offer customers the green pricing option.

Customers check a form to offset a certain percentage of their energy in renewable energy -- primarily wind. While the green energy isn't necessarily delivered directly to the customer, the utilities generate an amount of renewable energy equal to the purchase.

In Minnesota, which ranks fourth in the country in wind energy, participation in green pricing varies.

More than 700 customers in Moorhead, for instance, pay higher bills to get power from two 180-foot wind turbines in the city. That's more than 5 percent of the utilities' 14,000 customers -- the highest percentage in the state.

Jennifer Walz, a spokeswoman for the utility, said wind is a constant presence in Moorhead, which is surrounded by the plains of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota. The turbines are also a visible reminder of the program, called Capture the Wind.

"I think we have had good fortune with our program, in part, because we are so windy, and people are just increasingly aware of the importance of finding energy alternatives," she said.

In marketing the program, the city gave its two turbines names: Zephyr (because it makes a gentle breeze) and Freedom (representing independence from foreign sources of oil).

Churches and synagogues are also helping to promote green pricing. At least 40 congregations in the Twin Cities alone are involved in signing up members for the alternative energy premium, according to Sean Gosiewski, coordinator of the group Congregations Caring for Creation.

Other Minnesota cities with top participation rates include Winthrop (3.8 percent), Detroit Lakes (3 percent), and North St. Paul (2.9 percent).

In Preston, the Rev. Galles quietly encourages others to take part in what he sees as a small step toward better environmental stewardship and more responsible energy policy.

"I know just in talking to people, in this area there is a genuine interest in the environment and in producing new forms of energy," he said.

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