How green is Clean Energy?

05/31/2012

Starting July 1, Marin Energy Authority will begin rolling out its Marin Clean Energy (MCE) program for the 95,000 Marin County residents not already being served. Unless they choose to opt out—residents have until five days before their July meter reading to do so—customers will have their power source automatically switched to the clean energy program. The program is being billed as a win-win that offers more affordable, reliable and renewable power, and that reduces greenhouse gas emissions by more than 68,000 tons.

But some residents have been confused by the new initiative, wondering what exactly this “local alternative to dirty fossil fuels” is, where it is coming from, and at what cost. Customers are also being encouraged to sign up for the Deep Green program, promising 100 percent clean energy. Marin Energy Authority (MEA) has called this program “the single most important action any of us in Marin can take right now to curb global warming” and a way to “achieve energy independence.” It costs just a penny more per kilowatt-hour, averaging an additional $4 to $6 per month.

But power engineer Jim Phelps says not so fast. According to Mr. Phelps, who has created a website, MEAtruth.org, the program is misleading and relies on the purchase of Renewable Energy Certificates, or REC’s, to make its energy appear “green” without actually being so.

When an electron is created from a solar or other renewable energy facility, it is actually two products that are created: The electron itself, and its “green attribute,” which is a designation or an “intangible product” that can be “split” and sold on its own. When the electrons are sold as electricity, they can either be sold along with their green attributes, making them “bundled” green energy, or the green attributes can be sold alone as REC’s, making it “unbundled” green energy.

When the electrons themselves are sold or used without their green attributes—meaning someone else has bought that credit—then they are not considered to be renewable energy, even if the actual electrons were created through a renewable source.

A provocative graphic on Mr. Phelps’s website shows a picture of smokestacks with the caption “PG&E Brown Power.” Next to it is the same picture, linked to a paper certificate for renewable energy—coming from “Europe, Brazil or other recognized certificate producing region,” with the caption “Marin Clean Energy green power.” To Mr. Phelps, MEA’s program is just greenwashing.

Mr. Phelps said the practice of using REC’s to make claims of green energy is akin to using the purchase of carbon offsets to compensate for emissions made elsewhere, whereby companies, governments and other entities can buy offsets in order to comply with caps on the total amount of carbon dioxide they are allowed to emit. They are still emitting the same amount of carbon dioxide, but they are paying to support worthy projects, such as tree planting or renewable energy creation, to compensate for their damage.

A REC is awarded when an entity such as a wind farm creates one megawatt-hour of clean power. The farm can then sell that REC to a broker, who in turn sells it to a power company wanting to improve its clean energy portfolio. A single megawatt-hour REC can cost between $1.50 and $6, depending on the market. But as with carbon emissions offsets, the purchasing company is still producing the same brown energy; they are merely paying for clean energy to be produced elsewhere.

“REC’s are really just a scam,” Mr. Phelps said. “You’re not getting green energy, you’re getting what someone else once did.”

While there is no mention of REC’s in the postcards and pamphlets mailed to Marin residents about the new program, MCE does use them. One of the sources is the PaTu Wind Farm, a turbine facility in Sherman County in north-central Oregon. The farm sells its REC’s to wholesalers like OneEnergy Inc., who then pass on the REC ownership to MEA at a profit. According to Mr. Phelps, all of Marin’s energy still comes from regular, “brown” power, and the use of REC’s is misleading residents to think their power is green when it is not. He also contends that MCE’s emissions are actually higher than those of PG&E.

But MEA Executive Officer Dawn Weisz says that is not the case.

“There is no accurate [greenhouse gas (GHG)] analysis that could show MEA with higher GHG emissions,” she said. “Mr. Phelps has a long history of distributing information and graphics that are fabricated and intentionally misleading. Our emissions factor for 2011 was less than PG&E’s by three times in 2011. [That data] was reported by PG&E using the climate registry, a third-party industry standard measurement of GHG emissions.”

Still, REC’s do constitute a significant percentage of MEA’s energy portfolio.

“In 2011 we had approximately 3.5 percent unbundled REC’s in our energy mix,” Ms. Weisz said. “As of 2012 we will use 27 percent bundled renewable energy and 23 percent unbundled REC’s.”

Why the sudden jump? “The board wanted to increase our renewable energy percentage from 27 percent to 50 percent,” Ms. Weisz said. “When we launched that goal was just 25 percent, which we have been able to exceed far ahead of our own expectations.”

But Deep Green customers could get 100 percent REC’s, since MEA’s contract allows for their unlimited use.

“Right now, the Light Green automatically-enrolled customers will receive 27 percent bundled renewable energy, 23 percent unbundled renewable energy, and the rest comes from non-renewable sources,” Ms. Weisz said. The bundled energy comes from facilities across the West Coast, from Los Angeles up to Washington State. The unbundled REC’s are purchased from facilities as far away as Idaho, but do not go farther afield than that.

Mr. Phelps is also concerned with how MEA will deliver its green energy commitments that aren’t created by the purchase of REC’s. Currently MEA is encouraging the production of affordable, bundled renewable energy through the creation of solar farms, such as the one slated to be installed at the San Rafael Airport, and the Rio Bravo Solar Farm in Placer County.

According to Rio Bravo’s contract, MEA’s guaranteed construction start date was February 1, 2012, but Ms. Weisz admitted that so far what has been accomplished pertains to site and development rights, planning and personnel. Mr. Phelps wonders how MEA can expect to have commercial operations up and running by March 31, 2013, as planned, when ground has yet to be broken.

“If MEA can’t deliver what has been promised, how will it make that up?” he asked. “They won’t be able to get out of the plant what they say they will, and whatever they don’t create will have to be compensated with brown power so we don’t have blackouts.”

Ms. Weisz said that MEA would continue to increase its bundled renewable energy incrementally each year, and expected it to reach 33 percent of all energy used by 2020 or sooner.

“That’s the direction we continue to move in,” she said, adding that the slow progress was a function of keeping rates affordable. And while 100 percent bundled renewable energy was definitely a possibility at some point in the future, in the meantime REC’s remained an important part of the renewable energy market, and allow for flexibility.

OneEnergy President Bill Eddie stressed that the sale of REC’s were what made the creation of many renewable energy projects possible.

“They are written into the planning for these projects. They aren’t an after-thought,” Mr. Eddie said. “The purchase and sale of renewable energy credits has stimulated thousands of megawatt-hours of renewable energy. REC’s are the market mechanism for generating new renewable energy. You can only get back your investment by selling your power, both the electrons and the REC’s.” And for many, it is cost prohibitive to buy both.

While the use of unbundled REC’s may seem suspect to Mr. Phelps and others, the fault may lie in how renewable energy is managed on a national and even global scale. “We just aren’t trying to change the way the market buys, sells and uses renewable energy,” Ms. Weisz said. “We aren’t changing it and we aren’t doing it differently from anyone else.”