Commentary: About Those Green Energy Solicitations…Are They Legit?

As Newton residents, you have probably been called or received mail offering to provide you with “green” power. Is this legit?

The answer is that while such offers may (or may not) be legitimate, they are not offering power that is truly green and local. Massachusetts allows electric customers in Newton and surrounding towns to buy their power from providers other than Eversource, but it is Eversource that distributes the electricity to you and maintains the wires and transformers needed to do that. In turn, Eversource buys power on the energy market and is required by the state to purchase a proportion of their power from qualifying renewable power generators that meet state Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS). The current RPS requires only 12% of the power delivered by MA utilities to be “Class 1 Renewables.” Each year this number must increase by 1%.

All of this hinges on something you probably have heard of: “RECs”. What are RECs and how should they weigh into your decision to buy “renewable” power from an alternate source?

All of the electrons from all sources (nuclear, natural gas, wind, solar, hydro, etc.) flow into the New England power grid and are delivered to your home or business as required. There is no way to separate these sources: for example, if you are connected to the grid, 30 percent of your power comes from Pilgrim and Seabrook nuclear power stations.

The good news is that there is an honest broker who accounts for the electrons that are actually generated by renewable power sources and avoids double counting. A REC is the “green-ness” associated with a kilowatt hour of renewable power. Class 1 RECs exclude older sources of non-fossil fuel generation as well as big hydro, trash to energy, and some other ways to generate power for the grid.

Here’s where the “Class 1” is important: RECs were devised as an incentive to develop new renewable power sources. Think wind turbines or solar arrays. The owner of a wind farm gets to sell not only the power they generate, but also the RECs. That increases the profitability of developing new renewable power and provides an incentive that is necessary to make it a viable business venture.

However, there are parts of the United States where a wind farm pays for itself and produces a good profit margin for the developer/owner. Texas, for example. When you buy “green” power from someone who calls you or mails you a solicitation to “go green” you are buying RECs for the power you use. And in many cases those RECs come from generators like Texas wind farms, whose owners are happy to accept your money for their RECs, but don’t use it to develop any more wind turbines than they otherwise would.

So the key thing is the “Class 1” that goes with RECs from sources that wouldn’t otherwise be economically viable. Like New England-based wind. These facilities still need REC income to be able to build more clean wind turbines, and that’s where we should be putting the money we choose to spend on “green” power. (You can get this from MassEnergy Consumer’s Alliance.)

So, buyer, beware, and don’t be taken advantage of. If you care about climate change and going beyond fossil fuels, make sure your dollars go to support renewable sources that wouldn’t otherwise be built. Then your RECs will be put to work increasing the world’s share of renewable energy.

One final note: Good News! Massachusetts allows cities and towns to buy power for all of their citizens who get basic service from utilities like Eversource. This is called “aggregating energy”. And one option when a city like Newton decides to do this, is to up the share of real Class 1 RECs that increase the supply of locally sourced renewable power. Newton is considering aggregation this year. Let’s go for 100% Class 1 wind. Stay tuned!

By Jim Purdy, Vice President of Green Newton and member of Newton’s Energy Commission