Do Renewable Energy Credits really reduce pollution?

The cover story of BusinessWeek‘s October 29 issue addresses the issue of renewable energy credits (RECs). The key question is whether RECs are really a viable way to reduce pollution or just another greenwashing strategy for companies to appear politically correct. The article suggests that RECs provide a way to look green but do not result in substantial pollution-reducing benefits. I commend BusinessWeek for shining a light into this dark corner. Excerpts below.

Link: Little Green Lies

Introduced at the beginning of the decade, RECs (renewable energy credits) are supposed to marshal market forces behind wind and solar power. Developers of clean energy sell RECs, usually measured in megawatt hours of electricity, to buyers that want to counterbalance their pollution by funding environmentally friendly power. But often the REC trade seems like little more than the buying and selling of bragging rights, rather than incentives that lead to the construction of wind turbines or solar panels.

The trouble stems from the basic economics of RECs. Credits purchased at $2 a megawatt hour, the price Aspen Skiing and many other corporations pay, logically can’t have much effect. Wind developers receive about $51 per megawatt hour for the electricity they sell to utilities. They get another $20 in federal tax breaks, and the equivalent of up to $20 more in accelerated depreciation of their capital equipment. Even many wind-power developers that stand to profit from RECs concede that producers making $91 a megawatt hour aren’t going to expand production for another $2. "At this price, they’re not very meaningful for the developer," says John Calaway, chief development officer for U.S. wind power at Babcock & Brown, an investment bank that funds new wind projects. "It doesn’t support building something that wouldn’t otherwise be built."

Auden Schendler learned about corporate environmentalism directly from the prophet of the movement. In the late 1990s, Schendler was working as a junior researcher at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank in Aspen led by Amory Lovins, legendary author of the idea that by "going green," companies can increase profits while saving the planet. As Lovins often told Schendler and others at the institute, boosting energy efficiency and reducing harmful emissions constitute not just a free lunch but "a lunch you’re paid to eat."

Schendler, meanwhile, has become a prominent critic of RECs, a potentially confusing role, since his employer buys them. In an April letter to the Center for Resource Solutions, a nonprofit group in San Francisco that certifies credits, he said that RECs have as much effect on the development of new renewable-energy projects as would trading "rocks, IOUs, or pinecones." That statement, which inevitably whizzed around the Internet, stung some in the ski industry who interpreted it as an attack. Schendler’s immediate boss, General Counsel Dave Bellack, has heard from competitors asking that he stifle Schendler. Bellack has declined.

Now simultaneously an insider and an outsider in corporate environmental circles, Schendler relishes the notoriety. "I don’t think I’m seen as a team player in this industry," he says, "but I don’t care. This issue is so much bigger than just the ski industry." In March he told the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources that companies won’t make serious progress without regulation of carbon emissions—a departure from his earlier faith that abundant, profitable green projects will transform the way business operate.

His former mentor Lovins says Schendler could find further cost-saving energy efficiencies with more support from his superiors. But this mind-set, Schendler warns, could influence companies to pursue exclusively projects with quick payoffs: "The idea that green is fun, it’s easy, and it’s profitable is dangerous. This is hard work. It’s messy. It’s not always profitable. And companies have to get off the mark and start actually doing stuff."