Princeton community energy program a boondoggle that undermines progress

By Alfred Cavallo

To the Editor: 

In an April 14 press release and in a full-page, full-color ad in the Town Topics on Earth Day, April 22, the municipality of Princeton, without any significant public discussion, announced the Princeton Community Renewable Energy (PCRE) Program[1]. Princeton had signed a contract with Constellation NewEnergy (CNE) on behalf of Princeton residents to provide allegedly 50/100% renewable electricity. Residents who have PSE&G as their electricity supplier are automatically enrolled in this program; this feature is mandated in such contracts and obviously strongly favors CNE. Residents may opt out at any time, but that is unlikely. 

Unfortunately, what the PCRE Program actually offers is significantly dirtier electricity with a true renewable energy content of less than 4%. Worse yet, by telling residents that they are buying real renewable energy when they are not, this program encourages complacency and actually undermines support for initiatives that really would limit greenhouse gases and reduce pollution.    

The Environmental Information Disclosure Statement

All New Jersey energy suppliers must provide an environmental information disclosure statement that lists the fuels used to generate the electricity they supply. This enables consumers to compare suppliers and use a supplier that sells cleaner electricity. Suppliers such as CNE that make no effort to provide cleaner energy are allowed to use the power plant fuel usage averaged over the entire PJM[2] wholesale electricity market; electricity provided may be dirtier than average but it is unlikely that it would be cleaner. Suppliers such as PSG&E that do claim to provide cleaner energy must supply proof to the NJ Bureau of Public Utilities which in turn validates this assertion. These disclosure statements are available on the CNE[3] and PSE&G[4] websites. 

Comparing these two disclosure statements shows that CNE electricity is generated by burning 18% more coal than PSE&G (2018-2019). Choosing CNE as an energy supplier will therefore result in a 14% increase in carbon emissions, a 23% increase in sulfur oxides emissions, an 18% increase in nitrogen oxides emissions in addition to higher particulate emissions (PM2.5), as well as higher mercury and other toxic metals emissions, compared to PSE&G. Renewable energy content for both suppliers is less than 4%, virtually inconsequential. 

Furthermore, the stated renewable energy content (50/100%) of the power supplied by CNE is conjured up by combining the fossil and nuclear-generated power with renewable energy certificates (RECs) costing probably around 0.9 cents/kWh. A REC certifies that 1 megawatt-hour of renewable electricity has been generated; the electricity itself is immediately sold. Meanwhile the certificate, really just a wisp in the ether, is sold separately.  Originally, this was a way for a renewable generator to improve its economic viability. Over time, the REC has taken on an almost spiritual, mystical significance and is now alleged[5]to represent the positive environmental attributes of renewable energy as well as to encourage new renewable energy projects. In reality, the REC has become the central part of a phantasmagorical marketing scheme that magically transforms fossil and nuclear electricity into renewable energy itself and provides virtually no support for new projects.

As shown by the disclosure statements of both suppliers, this program is complete fakery: renewable energy is a negligible part of the PJM electricity supply delivered to Princeton residents. The only good news is that this is just an 18-month contract, and thus the damage to the environment caused by this dirtier electricity supply will be limited.  

RECs Information on the CNE Website

Constellation’s own NJ Green Home Power Plan provides further insight into how RECs are used to camouflage the purchase of conventional fossil/nuclear generated electricity. The green plan has a note beneath the price (13.19 cents/kWh) that reads “100% wind power” followed by a wind turbine logo. An asterisk leads to an explanatory note that states: The electricity supply service includes renewable energy certificates sourced from wind power generators within the United States (“RECs”) in an amount equal to 100% of the Accounts’ usage

This makes it clear that CNE is selling wind RECs plus fossil/nuclear generated electricity, not renewable energy itself. All the “beneficial” renewable attributes REC are said to represent cannot make the pollution from fossil fuel combustion vanish: it is still there, poisoning the land and water, and fueling the civilization threatening warming of the Earth.      

CNE is selling this same package to Princeton residents. Yet the municipality proclaims This agreement provides residents with an electric supply that has a 50% renewable energy content…

Role of RECs in the NJ Renewable Portfolio Standard

Sadly, NJ residents are already being fooled into thinking that a large fraction of the electricity they use comes from renewable resources. According to the NJ Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), all energy suppliers must provide electricity with some minimum renewable energy content; the requirement has increased year by year since the program was established in 1999 and now is set at 23.5%. However, there is a loophole in this mandate that is big enough to sail a supertanker through: this requirement may be satisfied by purchasing the appropriate number of RECs to match the 23.5% of the power supplied by conventional fossil/nuclear fuels. In addition to doing nothing to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, this reinforces the illusion that RECs somehow compensate for the pollution produced by fossil fuel combustion, and that the combination of RECs plus conventional electricity is equivalent to renewable electricity.     


Princeton residents should not be fooled by this bait and switch scheme. To avoid increasing emissions from their electricity consumption, they should without hesitation opt out of the PCRE Program. Instead, they should try to lease an EV to replace a gasoline-powered vehicle, have a home energy audit, purchase a rooftop solar array, replace inefficient appliances and windows with more efficient ones, buy local produce, minimize meat consumption, and drop out of the frantic consumer culture that is destroying our planet. Finally, the municipality should, at least in a token nod to reality, change the name of the program to the Princeton Community Energy Program.  

Dr. Cavallo is a Princeton resident. He is an energy consultant and formerly was a physicist with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He has also worked at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Princeton University.

Submit your letters to editor@planetprinceton.com.



[2] PJM operates a competitive wholesale electricity market and manages the high-voltage electricity grid to ensure reliability for more than 65 million people.  The PJM grid extends from parts of Illinois in the west, east to New Jersey and south to part of North Carolina.  It is one of the largest grid management systems in the world (https://www.pjm.com).


[4] https://corporate.pseg.com/-/media/pseg/corporate/corporate-citzenship/environmentalpolicyandinitiatives/environmental_label2018.ashx



  1. Why does this not surprise me?

    Never mind. That was the most rhetorical of rhetorical questions I have ever asked.

  2. What would it cost for a typical Princeton homeowner to disconnect from PSEG and purchase, install and maintain the equipment necessary to heat, cool and power their entire home using ONLY renewable energy?

    1. I assume you mean go off the grid, which I would not recommend. Your best bet is to make your home as efficient as possible and buy electricity from a renewable energy third party supplier. The environmental disclosure statement is the key. There are very few renewable energy suppliers. Or just stick with pse&g.

      1. This would be horrendously expensive. I would not recommend this for an individual. It would be technically feasible and affordable for a utility, but not an individual.

  3. Thank you Dr. Cavallo for doing the research and clearly explaining what this new program is really doing (or not doing). I had not noticed the brief announcements about the program and was not happy to learn that the town council has the power to override my choice of electricity provider (yes, I wanted to buy from PSEG, it was not a default). We called immediately and opted out. Hopefully your explanation will help a lot other people make an informed choice on this matter.

  4. A renewable energy certificate (REC) is simply a certification that an energy producer like a wind farm has generated a unit of energy. The REC is retired when a user buys that energy to power a factory, to charge an EV, or to run a fridge.

    A REC is a wisp in the ether in the same way that the electronic ledger of my bank is a wisp in the digital ether. The part of that ledger that is visible to me is what I call the balance on my checking account, and it is as real and as useful to me as a wad of cash I put under my mattress (only cleaner).

    These RECs are a way to pay a premium to producers of clean energy. Not only that, the more of us buy RECs, the stronger the signal to policy makers that there is popular appetite for more clean energy generation. And the cool thing about a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) plan like PCRE is that bundling our purchase gives price negotiation clout.

    The upshot is that for about the same price as PSE&G’s “basic” electricity, I can support clean energy producers. It doesn’t bother me that they’re not in the state: after all, it also doesn’t matter where a coal burning plant dumps its carbon pollution into our common atmosphere. Moreover, together with my neighbors I help send a signal that this user wants low-carbon energy, thereby doing my little bit to encourage more clean energy development, including off the New Jersey shore.

    If you want to read up on the wonky details of CCAs and RECs yourself, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has a good review [1], and David Roberts has an explainer [2] translating the wonkiness into English (the article is from 2015 but the principles are still valid).

    I learned a few interesting things from these articles but the main takeaway is that as usual Sustainable Princeton has done proper due diligence before proposing the PCRE program, and the town has made the right choice in adopting it. I intend to remain in the program.

    [1] https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy19osti/72195.pdf
    [2] https://www.vox.com/2015/11/9/9696820/renewable-energy-certificates

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