(This is the first of a 4-month series on climate or carbon offsets and the S2S program)
By Kurt Reinhold, President of Legacy Solar Wisconsin Cooperative, 3/19/20
This month, Bayfield County officially completed its goal of 100% Carbon Free Electricity operations by purchasing the final 50 Megawatt-hours* of solar offsets (solar RECs) from Legacy Solar Cooperative’s Switch-to-Solar REC inventory. The solar electricity that was purchased by Bayfield County was generated in Monona, Wisconsin by rooftop solar in 2018 and 2019.
*The actual number of kWhs of solar purchased is 49,500 (equal to 49.5 MWh).
For many, this announcement may be just as impressive as it is confusing to understand. At some point, everybody will have asked themselves, “what does Carbon Neutral even mean”? Is it the same as “Net Zero” emissions or even the newer term “Climate Neutral”? And, how did Bayfield County calculate their emissions as well as their achievement of neutrality?
Obviously, we are talking about the emissions of greenhouse gases that make up the growing percentage of our atmosphere being carbon dioxide and related carbon molecules that add to the greenhouse effect. Other emissions like sulfur and nitrogen oxides, as well as mercury or other poisonous byproducts of fossil fuel burning are also serious issues, but when it comes to climate change, we are chiefly looking at carbon dioxide and methane (natural gas) emissions that are responsible for almost all of the warming we see as a cumulative effect of burning or emitting fossil fuels.
We will address these questions and more this spring as the Co-op gets set to launch a more aggressive business plan centered around this Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) and Carbon Offset marketplace. We will show you how we are positioning LSC to be Wisconsin’s tracking system and clearinghouse for all carbon emissions and carbon offsets relating to the generation and use of energy by fossil fuel and renewable energy sources.
First, let’s get some of these terms and definitions cleared up for you. Even after reading these terms and our explanations, it may still take a bit for this all to sink in and actually mean something to you – but, that’s the whole point! We need to make these terms meaningful to as many people as possible because it’s the only way our society can get an accurate picture of the extent of the problem (carbon emissions) and the status of our progress (reducing carbon emissions). Now is not the time for fuzzy math!
“Net Zero Electricity” – The important distinction here is based on a home’s electricity use and not on a home’s use of natural gas, propane, or other fuels derived from polluting sources. A home can be Net Zero (electricity-related emissions1) if the number of kilowatt-hours of fossil-fuel utility-supplied electricity is offset by renewable sources. This can be accomplished two ways:
- Onsite renewable energy generation (wind or solar, typically); and/or
- Purchase of RECs (Renewable Energy Certificates) from a reputable source.
In the case of Bayfield County, all the facilities that fall under the jurisdiction of that county government’s responsibility are being counted in this inventory to meet the pledge to derive at least 25% of the County’s electricity from renewable resources (carbon-free) by the year 2025. There is a separate part of that pledge which includes 25% of the County’s transportation fuels from renewable resources as well, so when we talk about the County (government) as using Carbon Free Electricity for the next 5 years (2020 through 2024), we are saying that every single kilowatt-hour of the County’s electrical consumption will be matched by either renewable energy generation or renewable energy certificates (RECs).
Of course, that begs another question – What is a REC?
“REC” or “Renewable Energy Certificate” – A REC is equivalent to 1,000 kilowatt-hours of renewable electricity coming from solar or wind (or even hydroelectric) power. Usually, wind and solar are the two preferred sources for RECs as they are less polluting than hydro-electric power. The Switch-to-Solar program by LSC deals exclusively with sRECs (Solar RECs) that are only generated in Wisconsin, as opposed to the vast majority of RECs out there which come from far away wind projects (most of the time, out-of-state).
Two other important features of the REC market are Transparency and Tracking. Transparency is knowing exactly where your RECs are coming from (the actual solar array responsible for the generation of those 1,000 kilowatt-hours of solar power) and Tracking refers to the fact that these RECs can only be counted once. LSC RECs are sourced only from Wisconsin solar projects and are retired on behalf of the buyer upon purchase of that REC. Retiring RECs means that they cannot be traded or used for any other purpose than offsetting fossil fuel use and can only be claimed by the buyer of those RECs. LSC goes one step further in that we will not purchase more than 50% of any member’s RECs so that our supplier’s can honestly claim some (up to 50%) of the clean energy benefits from their solar project while the other 50% can be claimed by Wisconsin residents and organizations that rely on these RECs to meet their own sustainability or carbon cutting goals.
“Carbon Neutral” or “Climate Neutral”– This designation is more comprehensive than “Net Zero” in that we are talking about all the energy-related emissions included in the operation of a home, a business, or in the case of Bayfield County, all of the facilities under the County government’s purview. This is a much larger concept than simply Net Zero or Carbon Free Electricity because electricity is only about one-quarter (1/4) to one-third (1/3) of all our human-related carbon emissions with respect to the global warming potential based on equivalencies to carbon dioxide.
Again, the main ways we can achieve “Carbon Neutral” operations is by reducing or offsetting these carbon emissions, usually by 1) using a renewable fuel source, or 2) buying (and retiring) Carbon Credits or Carbon Offsets through reputable programs. More on this soon.
Next month we will delve more into what reputable sources of Carbon Credits or Carbon Offsets are out there. Suffice it to say, buying S2S Credits through Legacy Solar Co-op is one of the most reputable and relevant ways you can both achieve your goals for Carbon Neutral or Net Zero operations, AND also creating an incentive for new solar projects to get built THIS YEAR!2
1Again, “Net Zero Household” does not count the other fossil fuels consumed by this home like therms of natural gas or pounds or cubic-feet of liquid petroleum (LP gas or propane). It is for this reason that we prefer to use one of the other terms to indicate progress on reducing fossil fuel emissions, like Carbon Neutral or Climate Neutral instead of Net Zero.
2Legacy Solar Cooperative strives to include at least 50% Additionality RECs in our inventory. Additionality refers to RECs that are being purchased from brand new projects at the time the land or building owners are deciding whether or not to commit to a solar project. Additionality ensures that part of your S2S purchase is going to brand new solar projects that may not have happened without the Co-op’s promise to purchase of those RECs ahead of the actual signing of the contract to build the solar arrays in question.