The hidden truth behind the Renewable Energy Certificate market

By Rachel Dawson

You may have noticed companies and public agencies using the words “renewable energy certificates” or RECs in regard to the alleged source of their electricity, but rarely do they explain what they are. Only that purchasing RECs on your behalf is a good thing.

But what exactly is a REC? And what benefits do we as voters and consumers reap from these entities’ continued investment in them?

As it turns out, they may not do as much “good” as you’re being told.

RECs are a tradable commodity sold by renewable energy facilities (such as wind and solar farms) to the wholesale market, that purport to represent the “environmental amenities” of certain renewable energy projects. By purchasing a REC, an entity has the legal right to claim it is using renewable energy; however, the group has not purchased any energy itself.

For example, the City of Portland has the objective of generating or purchasing “100 percent of all electricity for city operations from renewable resources.” However, the vast majority of the claimed “renewable energy sources” are actually RECs purchased on the market from wind farms. In fact, 14% of the renewable energy they claim to have comes from wind farms in Alaska. Since Portland is in no way connected to the Alaskan grid, the City of Portland is using taxpayers’ dollars to lay claim to wind energy that is actually being consumed by Alaskans.

Further, TriMet claims their electric buses run on 100% wind energy, however, TriMet’s buses are hooked up to the same utility grid as your home. This means that only 9% of the electricity they consume is actually wind, while 14% comes from coal. The only difference is TriMet spends $228.75 per month to claim their electricity is completely green.

Many private companies also purchase RECs, purely for public relations purposes. Buyers include Starbucks and General Mills. These costs are then passed on to consumers even though renewable energy was not actually used.

Fortunately one major company is pulling the curtain back on this practice, and ironically it’s the company Portland politicians love to hate: WalMart.

According to WalMart: (emphasis added)

“We want to do more than just shift around ownership (and marketing rights) of existing renewable energy…we prefer not to simply offset our non-renewable power by purchasing standalone renewable energy credits (RECs)…While REC purchasing may allow us to more quickly say we are supplied by 100% renewable energy…we do not have confidence that offsetting instruments alone are sufficient to drive new renewable projects, as opposed to simply shifting around ownership of existing renewable electrons.” (emphasis added)

WalMart’s analysis is backed up by leading academics. According to Daniel Press, a Professor of Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz, “RECs do little to reduce emissions in the real world because they have become too cheap to shift energy markets or incentivize businesses to build new turbines.”

Further, Michael Gillenwater, a Princeton researcher who helped to develop the EPA’s carbon emissions tracking system, admits that most renewable energy projects would have been developed without the help of consumer purchased RECs. It’s hard to verify claims made by utilities regarding the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that were avoided due to RECs and “you don’t have an overseeing regulator ensuring that the claims made are backed up.”

Private companies are free to spend their money as they please. However, Oregon should prohibit the purchase of RECs with tax dollars by government agencies. If the goal is more renewable energy, then like WalMart we should focus on generating actual electricity.

Certainly, it would be embarrassing for Oregon politicians to admit that they are wrong and WalMart is right. But the long path to moral redemption begins with the first steps.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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  1. Avatar for Tom Kelly

    Tom Kelly

    8:30 pm - June 5, 2020

    I am a senior Oregon Native and have watched our great City and State go to hell, due to the lying greedy self serving politicians, and the migrating hoards of escapees moving out of the so called golden state to corrupt Oregon ,Washington, Idaho and Montana from California…and Now the tax on worker bee;s to take the of the homeless, who are to damn lazy to work. However they have ruined the neighborhoods of the Rose City, with garbage, thefts and arson.
    Sorry my Bible says if you want to eat, go to work! Amen

    I have hated the toilet bowl of tax payer waste, since the days of Rose City Transit., where they ripped up the rails , repaved the streets , making the downtown area a traffic nightmare. It has also become the most corrupt, unsafe, entity, I have ever seen, with no accountability. Your great story, from proved that quite well Super Job on the lies they create and the politicians they buy, to pander to their requests and every wish. Gee I forgot the fact that innocents, real men, who were killed, as passengers, while trying to defend a lady who was being threatened about her ha-bib! Great PR and a Gaggle of Lawyers, kissed that away, because their Security is Unarmed, since the liberals hate gun toting Trained Officers, because it is no longer politically correct to defend ones self from attack!

    Please keep the heat on, with the truth. But nothing will change until we by initiative petition, remove the “Cloak of Immunity” from Judges , Congress, Senators and all Government Employees. Any of them cause harm to citizens, they are liable! Also enforcing the original united states constitution, as written and concerning the Separation of Powers… No lawyers on the Executive and the Legislative branches of Government. ..including term limits! Time to stand up and reclaim our great American heritage and make America , once again the Leader, of those who wish to be free of people of the world! Nuff Said…

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