Thursday, May 13, 2010

Wind Power for Everyone!?

by Dave Rochlin -

I recently posted on the Cape Wind project, which will be built in Nantucket Sound. If it's like most other wind projects, you'll still be able to buy the energy it generates, whether you live as far away as California, Florida, or even Germany.

Extra long distance transmission lines? No, not quite. With the help of renewable energy credits (RECs), even if your utility can't sell you wind generated electrical power, you can buy it anyway. In fact most utilities that claim to offer a"green energy" option are actually selling you the same old electricity bundled with RECS. Not everyone seems to be aware of this.

Renewable energy sources are typically more expensive, and not everyone wants to pay the premium, so the demand for renewable energy isn't always in the areas where it's produced. The simplest way to think of RECS is that you have the opportunity to buy the green energy that local buyers are not. As the EPA puts it: "RECs provide buyers flexibility in procuring green power across a diverse geographical area. This flexibility allows organizations and individuals to support renewable energy development and protect the environment when green power products are not locally available. "

Being a savvy wind buyer:
Utilities don't always make it easy to see where your support for the renewable piece goes or how much it really costs. The Con Ed utility in New York, for example will charges you an extra 2.5 cents per kWh for wind, because the power is generated 'locally'. It's actually sourced from wind farms in New Jersey and Pennsylvania owned by a utility group, energy marketer, and a recently liquidated Australian private equity firm. Sourcing nationally from third parties is typically cheaper (half the price or less), because the RECs supports wind projects where they are most cost effective (e.g. lots of wind, lots of land), and are replacing the dirtiest energy sources. My organization ClimatePath chose to offer RECs from a specific project in North Dakota (the Langdon Wind Farm), since North Dakota has the greatest wind generating potential of any state, but historically gets most of its electricity from coal. This makes it the ideal place to use wind power for the greatest impact. In our case, as for a few other REC providers, you also acquire the REC benefit via a non-profit, so it's a tax deductible transaction.

How much green?
Each power grid and utility has a different mix. 80% of your energy is already green in the state of Washington, but less than 20% in New York. If you are committed to green energy, you only need to buy RECs for the portion that your utility does not deliver. If you use 10 mWh per year, that means buying 8 mWh of RECs in New York, but only 2 mWh in Washington. State by state renewable information is available here.

Being a savvy consumer:
For individuals, buying green energy/RECS is simply stepping up and saying that "I value renewables enough to pay a premium." But for companies, it can lead to some mischaracterizations. One wind provider gave this advice about how businesses should talk about RECS to avoid 'greenwashing':

Do say:
We support wind power.
We are supporting the growth of renewable energy.
We offset 100% of our electricity with wind power.

Avoid saying:
We are wind-powered.
Our electricity is sourced only from renewable energy/wind power.
We use 100% wind power.

Good advice, but unfortunately this message often gets lost. Silk Soy Milk, for example, has been a leader in supporting wind energy via RECs. But their marketing department hasn't quite gotten the message about how to talk about it. A recent marketing piece I saw said "Silk is made using 100% wind energy". Unfortunately, this implies that Silk generates the wind on site. As a consumer, you should insist on more transparency and investigate claims from firms that use green in their marketing.

Is this all necessary?
Just as we need to encourage and fund rainforest preservation in Brazil and Costa Rica, we need to encourage wind and solar energy use where its practical to install it. We can either continue to wait for government solutions (which will cost you anyway) or use conservation, RECs, and offsetting to accomplish that goal. As the saying goes, if you aren't part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

Photo copyright: Adapted by ClimatePath from / CC BY 2.0 All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for mentioning Silk! Since 2003, we've been working to offset much of the electricity that we use with REC's from Bonneville Environmental Foundation. Here's the background.
    Cathy at Silk