Moving on From R.E.C.s, the College’s Plan to Reach Carbon Neutrality

In 1999 the college began purchasing renewable energy certificates, and the college’s 2012 “Climate Action Plan” cited Renewable Energy Credits (R.E.C.s) as a necessary tool to offset those greenhouse gas emissions associated with the generation of electricity that could not be eliminated by reducing consumption. Numerous studies have found that R.E.C. markets do little to drive the reduction of carbon emissions. In response to these concerns, the college intends to implement a new strategy of electrifying systems and decarbonizing electrical sources. 

As defined by the EPA, a R.E.C. is the “legal property rights to the ‘renewable-ness’ … of renewable electricity generation”. The owner of R.E.C.s can legally claim that they have offset the emissions caused by producing the electricity they use. 

The college began purchasing R.E.C.s the first year they were available in a non-wholesale capacity. This yearly commitment increased until it was in direct proportion to the total amount of electricity the college consumed. This allowed the college to assert, in a 2013 greenhouse gas inventory titled “Progress Toward Climate Neutrality”, that “100% of the College’s greenhouse-gas emissions generated from its electricity use are offset by R.E.C.s”.

According to Schneider Electric, the company the college buys R.E.C.s from, “R.E.C.s remain the only way that a North American buyer — including a utility — can claim and prove that it is using green power.”

However, there is significant skepticism about the effectiveness of R.E.C.s in driving down overall emissions. One research group from Harvard, Princeton, and UCLA found, in a paper titled “Additionality of Wind Energy Investments in the U.S. Voluntary Green Power Market,” that if “the voluntary green power market for R.E.C.s did not exist, the amount of electricity generated by wind power in the United States would be little different than what we actually see today.”

The college is taking note of this skepticism. 

“I think [the purchase of R.E.C.s] was a really innovative thing that we did at the time that the college decided to do it; things have evolved a lot since then and we’re really targeting more ambitious things for the future,” said Sustainability Coordinator Aurora Winslade. 

Director of Maintenance, Ralph Thayer, who handles the purchase of R.E.C.s, echoed Winslades sentiment.

“Buying R.E.C.s is kind of your last resort if you can’t do anything else. We started [buying R.E.C.s] decades ago only because that was the only avenue available to us at that time… As time has gone on, there are more opportunities,” said Thayer.

The college is actively pursuing some of those other opportunities as part of reaching the 2035 carbon neutrality goal. 

“In order to reach our carbon neutrality goal by 2035, we need to reduce our scope 1[the college’s direct emissions] and two emissions [emissions caused by the college’s consumption of electricity] to zero. And our overall approach has been to electrify as much as possible and then decarbonize our electricity,” said Kyle Richmond-Crosset ’19, Sustainability & Engaged Scholarship Fellow. 

The college is already in the process of electrifying heating and cooling, by far the biggest source of its scope one emissions.

Heating and cooling account for the vast majority of the college’s direct emissions. In order to electrify this system, the college plans to install a geo-thermal heat pump system that would replace the old steam system. 

“In essence, you’re taking the heat you build up in the summertime by getting your air conditioning going and storing it in the ground; so when winter comes around you’re actually extracting that heat,” Thayer explained. “It would enable us to do away with our steam system … and the fact of the matter is, [steam] is a wasteful type of energy use.” 

The project would take several years and require boring wells up to 500 feet deep.

Thayer expects that the addition of the geo-thermal system and other minor changes could easily increase the college’s yearly electrical consumption by a third but reduce dependence on fossil fuel. Increased consumption will increase the importance of decarbonizing electricity sources.  

“We see this pathway that is technologically feasible… that involves investing in some on-site and off-site renewable energy,” Winslade  explained.

On-site solar will cover “10 to 30 percent” of the college’s electricity consumption. The remaining 70 to 90% will come from participation in “a consortium with other institutions which would actually enter into an agreement with a [renewable energy] developer.” 

While there is a plan to achieve carbon neutrality without relying on R.E.C.s, the college is still figuring out the timeline. Thayer expects that it might take some time.

“R.E.C.s are going to be with us for a while because so much of the other planning is in flux. [On and off-site renewable energy generation] really hasn’t been funded yet,” he said.

Several local factors also make the endeavour of decarbonizing energy more challenging.

 “[Pennsylvania] laws, regulations, and incentive structures certainly make it harder to do renewable energy projects,” Winslade said. “Pennsylvania [has] some of the lowest electricity prices in the country.” 

These factors mean it is harder to make a purely financial argument for renewable energy projects. 

Despite these obstacles, there seems to be wide administrative buy-in. 

“I have been so incredibly heartened and impressed by the level of commitment at this institution,” said Winslade. “We’re at a point where we see a path forward, and we’re working with the decision makers of the institution to analyze all the research that we’ve been doing for the last few years. We’re hoping that by the end of this academic year, we will be able to make a public statement.”  

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