Princeton Environmental Commission subcommittee responds to criticisms regarding community renewable energy program

Dear Editor:

On behalf of the Princeton Environmental Commission Subcommittee who worked on the municipality’s energy aggregation program, we would like to respond to Al Cavallo and Charles Skinner’s letters suggesting that participation in Princeton’s Community Renewable Energy (PCRE) program is misguided.

The PCRE program provides a supply of electricity with a higher renewable energy content than PSE&G — at a lower price and with no change to the level of service. The program utilizes Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), a tool for tracking and accounting for clean energy in the electric grid, which would otherwise be impossible to separate out from dirty energy sharing the distribution wires.

A REC is created when 1MWh of renewable energy is provided to the electric grid. When someone wants to use that clean energy, they can purchase the REC and 1MWh of electricity from the grid, and retire the REC. Of course, the specific electrons are not the same ones that originally entered the grid, but the effect is the same, as long as the REC is only used once. For more detailed, technical information, please refer to the additional FAQ document  on Princeton’s municipal website under the “Princeton’s Community Renewable Energy Program” tab.

RECs are a widely accepted mechanism that create a market for the positive attributes of clean energy, allowing these assets to be traded efficiently. RECs are strictly regulated to ensure that they reflect the generation of clean energy, and that they are only used once. We frequently use this kind of symbolic “currency” to represent value in our daily lives: stock certificates, deeds, gift cards, even a $20 dollar bill. RECs are no different. Mr. Cavallo might call these “wisps in the ether,” but were we to reject such economic instruments, we would be reduced to a barter economy. Sustainable Jersey, an organization whose purpose is to promote sustainable practices by municipalities, has endorsed the purchase and retirement of RECs as a means to provide enhanced renewable content for energy aggregation programs and to support growth in the renewable energy market.

In their letters, both Mr. Cavallo and Mr. Skinner question the likelihood that participating in the market for renewable energy will encourage investment in new renewable production, thereby reducing emissions. Princetonians who have solar panels on their own roofs know that SRECs, a high-priced subset of RECs reserved for solar production, help pay for their investment and have had a significant impact on the market. This why New Jersey is second in the country for installed solar! We would contend that the best way to increase investment in wind and other renewables, is not to attack the market for clean energy, but rather to increase the required share of clean energy in our regional mix. States throughout the region have been increasing their requirements in recent years, and the price trends in the REC market are indeed going up. The PCRE program is our attempt to make a modest contribution to this dynamic.  We cannot mandate participation, but those who do participate increase the required share of clean energy in our mix locally.

We heartily endorse all of the emission reduction actions that Mr. Cavallo and Mr. Skinner suggest for Princeton residents — in fact they were featured prominently in Princeton’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), along with the adoption of PCRE.  We would like to comment in particular on Mr. Skinner’s suggestion that Princeton enter into a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with a clean energy producer. This is not allowed under the current state rules for Government Energy Aggregation, but we hope with advocacy at the state level, the rules can be changed and we can look to a PPA for  the next phase of our community energy purchasing. . Princetonians who choose to participate in PCRE can be proud of their support for an effective step in helping Princeton meet its target goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050.

David E. Cohen, Princeton Council President

Sophie Glovier, Chair Princeton Environmental Commission (PEC)

Christine Symington, Program Director Sustainable Princeton

Heidi Fichtenbaum, Co-chair PEC

Anne Soos, Member (PEC)