Shifting from RECs to Offsets–AASHE 2008

To the surprise of the presenter, Dave Newport of CU-Boulder, this afternoon’s discussion of GHG offsets and Renewable Energy Credits didn’t degenerate into fisticuffs or even a red-faced screaming match. In fact, the discussion was downright welcoming, which is what I’ve come to expect of the attendees of this conference.

Several weeks ago, our feature ClimateEdu article dealt with the different ways that universities and colleges are incorporating renewable energy into their portfolios, whether that’s through installing renewable energy equipment or through purchasing. It’s a touchy issue for most sustainability coordinators, who are intent on conservation, energy efficiency, and on-site generation where possible, but are also coming to terms with the fact that they may not be able to meet their full energy load with such measures. Many schools, in fact, find that they have a large gap to fill, and turn to offset measures to make up the difference.
However, the vagaries of the offset and REC market are still not well understood, even by experts, leading to general suspicion and sometimes outright hostility (which is apparently what Dave Newport expected).

Newport used his own campus as an example as he described the pros and cons of purchasing offsets versus RECs. CU-Boulder, which had been purchasing RECs since 2000 (using funds that students voted to add to their semester fees), switched this year to purchasing offsets through the Colorado Carbon Fund.
Renewable Energy Credits are simply certificates that assure the purchaser that somewhere, a MWh from renewable sources has been produced and fed into the grid. Newport says, “They have some pros, and that’s why we bought them. But we made a mistake, and we oversold them. We told our president that we’re buying wind power, and then when we tried to explain that there’s no big orange extension cord from a wind turbine to our campus, and that actually we don’t know where that energy went to when it got fed into the grid, we caused a lot of problems. We don’t say that anymore.”

While Newport feels that RECs have had their victories, among them increased market demand for renewable energy and the dismantling of some of the geographical barriers to sustainability, the disadvantages of RECs outweigh the benefits. He lists the public perception of REC’s as a ‘sin tax’, the lack of transparency, a poor sense of closure for buyers, and the lack of added value to the initial investment as cons.

Offsets, by contrast, particularly in the community-based model that CU-Boulder is developing, have the potential to not only reduce emissions, but fuel an ongoing movement.

Newport says, “We are focusing on local projects, and doing some of the labor ourselves. You will be able to ride your bike by and see our solar hot water heaters. We have bilingual students going into low-income neighborhoods to help residents weatherize their homes and save some of the energy costs that are disproportionately heavy on them. We’ll have a biomass plant, and new ways to manage transit. All of these things are creating green jobs, keeping local capital local, and are really good for students. And they’re so visible, we get the confidence from investors to keep doing more. It is about reducing carbon, but it’s just as much about improving people’s lives.”

We are recapping AASHE:
Sustainability on Campus and Beyond
as it happens. If you were at the
sessions we’re covering, weigh in with your comments below. Or see others’
blogs, photos and Twitter updates on the AASHE live page.

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Published: November 11, 2008