Letters: Renewable Alchemy Comes to Princeton!

By Charles Skinner

Every new car comes with a window sticker that certifies its environmental attributes, its energy consumption, emission ratings, and the estimated annual fuel costs. For an electric vehicle, let’s call this an EVC. Suppose a person went to a new car dealership and persuaded the dealer to sell them the EVC (and not the electric vehicle). They then submit this EVC with their tax return and claim a $7,500 electric vehicle tax credit. Would this make any sense ? 

Of course not, but the renewable energy industry has been using this approach for 20 years. Suppose you were able to buy energy from a neighborhood solar array (we skip over the technical difficulties). If you did so, you would not be buying ‘renewable energy’ in the language of the renewable energy industry. As explained by David Roberts in a very readable article on-line [link 1, and link 2 below] your neighbor’s ‘renewable energy’ is instead bound up in a ‘Renewable Energy Certificate’, a REC, that they can sell separately to someone else. A REC certifies the generation of 1 megawatt-hour of electricity from a renewable generator (eg, wind turbine) and is said to represent the environmental attributes of renewable energy even though it is neither renewable, nor energy – it’s just a certificate.

Who would buy such a certificate? Well, by law your power utility is allowed to buy them to satisfy the requirements of the state Renewable Portfolio Standard, and their cost is an invisible addition to your electric bill. This system is very counter-intuitive and a lot of confusion has been generated by misleading statements in the municipal description of the Princeton Community Renewable Energy program [link 3 below]. Many Princeton residents think that the new PCRE scheme means that their house will be supplied with renewable energy. On the contrary, the reality is the electricity they purchase will be generated by a conventional mix of coal, gas, nuclear sources with only 4% renewables. Wait a minute, you might say, wasn’t I promised a 50% or 100% ‘renewable energy product? Yes, you were, and this is where the alchemy comes in. If you look at the information from Constellation [link 4] you find that this ‘renewable energy content’ is mostly RECs – pieces of paper that greenwash fossil and nuclear power into renewable energy. The actual renewable fraction of the kWh that powers your home will be 3-4%, just as you would have gotten from PSE&G. The rest will be from conventional sources. This actually maybe just as well if you want to keep the lights on during a dark and windless night, but it is not what you were promised.

But what about the promised environmental benefits? The municipal website [link 3] states: ‘Implementation of this program will help enhance air quality in the region, generating health benefits for all’. This is where it gets even more convoluted. Firstly, the Environmental Impact Disclosure filed by Constellation uses regional (PJM) average air pollution numbers that are actually higher than PSE&G. So how can RECs enhance air quality? The theory is that REC prices will rise from the additional Princeton demand for these certificates and that this price increase will stimulate additional investment in new wind and solar arrays. Well, we all would like enhanced air quality, but this seems a rather tenuous hope compared to the likely immediate increase in air pollution from Princeton’s purchase of electricity from CNE.

The Municipality of Princeton, Sustainable Princeton, and the Princeton Environmental Commission are working hard to bring renewable energy and cleaner air to Princeton. They could have implemented a Power Purchase Agreement that bundles a REC with the renewable power that generated it (as Google does, for example, link 5 below). Instead, the PCRE purchases RECs separate from their renewable energy. Regrettably, the roll-out of the PCRE has misled Princeton residents into believing they are getting 50% or 100% renewable electricity supplied to their homes. We should demand clarity and transparency on the Princeton municipal website. The language should be revised to clearly explain that the PCRE is purchasing RECs, and the renewable fraction of the kWh of electricity purchased by Princeton residents will remain at 3-4%.

Dr. Skinner is a Princeton resident and a principal research physicist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. 

[1] https://www.vox.com/2015/11/9/9696820/renewable-energy-certificates
[2] https://www.vox.com/2015/11/16/9744620/support-renewable-energy 
[3] https://www.princetonnj.gov/news/municipality-launches-community-renewable-energy-program
[4] https://www.princetonnj.gov/resources/princeton-community-renewable-energy-program click on PCRE FAQ and scroll to p.8
[5] https://static.googleusercontent.com/media/www.google.com/en//green/pdfs/renewable-energy.pdf