How to sign up for renewable electricity, part II

A few months ago, I wrote about how to sign up for a clean energy plan with an energy provider directly. In this post, I want to get into the weeds a bit about what actually happens when you sign up, and walk you through a few other options to to support renewable energy generation that don’t involve any “infrastructure” upgrades at you home.

But first, here is a stumper question if you’ve signed up for clean electricity: if your apartment building gets electricity from one utility pole, how do you know the electrons that power your lights are “green” while they may not be for your next door neighbor?

Ha, trick question: you don’t! Most of us draw electricity from a regional power grid, where electricity from all sources (fossil fuel, wind, solar, hydro, etc) gets mixed together. This means that unless you have solar panels, a wind propeller, or a heat pump on your property, there is no way to get the 100% “clean stuff” delivered to your particular unit.

So why bother? Because if the goal is more clean energy and less fossil fuel, all we care about is our shared grid having more renewable content. In simple terms, when you opt in with a clean energy supplier, you are asking them to make electricity from renewable sources and pump that into the grid. Ta da, you have just shifted the grid mix. Now, as an electricity consumer, there are different mechanisms through which you can “sign up” for clean energy, and that’s what I’ll be explaining in this post.

wHAt tHE hEcK ArE RECs

To understand the green electricity market in the US, we have to take a detour and learn about an important concept first: Renewable Energy Certificates, RECs. They may appear by different names: green tags, Renewable Energy Credits, Tradable Renewable Certificates, etc, but they all mean the same thing: a non-tangible energy commodity in the US that represents proof that renewable energy was created and fed into the grid.

What are RECs and where you can buy them

RECs exist due to the fact that electrons are just…electrons, and they can’t carry any inherent environmental attributes. This is different from most goods; you can know a lot about the environmental qualities of paper vs plastic purely because of their physical manifestation: one is paper, and one is plastic. The only thing “clean” about the green electricity is the that they are generated through “clean” means, but how can suppliers of clean energy prove this and get rewarded for it? Enter RECs.

RECs are issued by various certifying agencies, and a solar or wind farm is credited with 1 REC for every 1000 kWh of electricity it makes. I won’t bore you with the deets here, but the certificates are a bit like stocks, and they are traded on their own market where the prices ebb and flow. RECs are different from carbon offset in the sense that offsets are meant to balance out emissions happening somewhere else. (In a hypothetical example, you buy offsets to fund a tree protection project, which keep 10 trees from being cut down, and those trees get to keep absorbing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere – which your emissions contribute to.) RECs, on the other hand, are only related to the electricity market, and simply verify that zero (or low) carbon electricity is being generated and used.

Where to buy RECs, 3 options

Whether you are an individual, nonprofit, business, or city, anyone anywhere in the US can buy RECs, which makes this the most accessible option for most people. As an individual energy user, here are a few ways you can buy RECs:

In all three of these scenarios, you’ll need to provide your electricity account information, and it may takes a few weeks or months for the new charge to appear on your bill. What you are buying is known as “bundled RECs”, meaning how much you buy is tied to the amount of electricity you use*. Remember, since each REC represents a certain number of renewable energy electrons, when you buy RECs linked to your electricity account, you are claiming the exact number of electrons your apartment used as “green” – even though electron particles can’t carry any environmental qualities inherently, and even though you and your neighbor still share a grid.

  • From an energy provider directly, as I wrote about here. Yes – when you sign up for a green electricity plan with a provider or through your utility company’s website, what you are buying is RECs!
  • Through a municipal program. An increasing number of cities and towns are now buying green electricity in bulk – aka RECs – and offering clean energy options to local residents and businesses. Most municipalities go through a bidding process and end up choosing one provider with a set price, so this option reduces price fluctuations and limits the number of provider choices for users. The latter especially can be nice, when there are so many energy providers to choose from! Just search online to see if this is a possibility in your area. Most towns I know offer several tiers (e.g., 100% green, 50% green, etc) with 100% green being the most expensive option, so you’ll have some choices based on your budget.
  • Through an organization that sells RECs. For example, here in New England, we have a non-profit that sells RECs that can be directly linked to your electricity account. There are for-profit companies that sell RECs as well that may offer more choices.

* Bundled RECs are of course defined in contrast to unbundled – as in – you just buy RECs independent of what you actually used. Though I’ve only seen larger entities, such as a company buying unbundled RECs, in order to claim “x% of our electricity use is green.”

Image credit: Andreas Gücklhorn via Unsplash

Buyers beware

Not all RECs are created equal. In Massachusetts where I live, Class I RECs are only issued to renewable generators built after 1997. Class II RECs are given to older facilities or facilities that burn solid waste. So if you live in Massachusetts, the best stuff to buy is MA class I RECs because you’d be encouraging new renewable facilities to be build and pump clean electricity into the New England regional grid (as opposed to…another state that’s super sunny or windy so it’s already transforming its grid in leaps and bounds).

In general, while the RECs as a concept are totally legit, the REC marketplace isn’t well regulated in the US. So before you sign up with a program, be sure to read up on what you are buying, and what it means. I personally like municipal programs the most because I trust that cities have done their due diligence. But if you must buy from a private company, I recommend purchasing from companies with a Green-e certificate.

Because buying RECs is one of the major ways corporations and municipalities use to meet the increasingly common “zero carbon” pledges, there is a huge amount of info you can find online about RECs, including its downsides, if you are interested in digging deep. This is a good one.

That’s all! I hope this post shows you some different clean energy options and help you understand what it means when you actually sign up. Do you have any other questions? Leave them in the comments!

Header image credit: Karsten Würth via Unsplash