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It’s not easy going ‘green’

Univ. solar energy not considered ‘renewable’ by renewable portfolio standards

Published: September 3, 2010
Section: Front Page


PHOTO BY Nafiz ‘Fiz’ Ahmed/The Hoot

Last November, the university installed solar panels on the roof of the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center as part of a Power Purchase Agreement with EOS Ventures in an effort to make the campus more “green.” Although the panels have been supplying the university with solar energy since February, the university is not allowed to label this energy “renewable” due to conventions relating to the way renewable energy is produced and sold.

When renewable energy is produced, there are two parts of the product that can be sold; the energy itself, measured in Kilowatt-hours, and “Renewable Energy Certificates” (REC), which represent the positive environmental effects associated with the Kilowatt-hours.

According to Massachusetts state law, these two products do not have to be sold to the same consumer, and only the consumer with the REC can claim to be using “green” or “renewable” energy.

While Brandeis buys energy from the panels–which supply Gosman with 10 percent of its electricity–the university did not buy the corresponding RECs.

“That’s why we have to say that the solar panels are reducing world-wide carbon, not Brandeis carbon,” Brandeis Sustainability Coordinator Janna Cohen-Rosenthal ’03 said. “We can say we are helping humanity’s environmental impact, but not in regard to Brandeis’ personal carbon footprint.”

Conversely, whoever purchased the REC from the solar panels can claim a proportion of their energy supply as “renewable,” even though it came from another location. This is in part due to the way the Massachusetts electricity grid works.

When energy is produced in Massachusetts, it goes into the New England grid, or network, where it mixes with all other energy produced in New England. This electricity is then sent to consumers, who get a “grid mix” of energy produced from nuclear, coal, gas, oil, hydro and solar power.

So while Brandeis benefits from the panel’s energy due to their proximity, the panels actually decrease New England’s carbon footprint as a whole.

“You can’t tell electrons where to go,” Cohen-Rosenthal said, “which is why you can sell the REC separate from the energy.”

Despite the inability to claim Brandeis as a renewable energy consumer, Cohen-Rosenthal said purchasing the RECs, which could cost $50 each, does not make financial sense for the university.

The buyer of an REC could potentially get a tax deduction for their purchase if they consider it to be a donation. Because Brandeis is a non-profit, the university is tax-exempt, and therefore cannot receive the financial benefits of buying the RECs.

Instead, the university has a 20-year contract with EOS Ventures that allows it to purchase the solar energy at a fixed price.

“The price we are paying now is a little more expensive than grid power, but because of market changes, we’ll be paying less for it than grid power within three to four years,” Cohen-Rosenthal explained, adding that it is the fixed price of the solar energy that will save the university one million dollars durring the course of the contract.

Cohen-Rosenthal said that two years ago the university bought enough RECs to make up 15 percent of the university’s energy supply as part of President Jehuda Reinharz’ climate commitment. When the RECs retired after one year, the university did not buy any more for financial reasons.

Cohen-Rosenthal said she initially was hoping to obtain solar-energy and RECs for the university, but said that most Power Purchase Agreements do not include the RECs.

“RECs are a way for power companies to finance the installation of the solar panels, which they have to pay for in a Power Purchase Agreement,” she explained.

Though Cohen-Rosenthal said she does think the REC system is a bit disingenuous on behalf of the person buying the REC and not the actual energy, calling it “green-washing,” Brandeis not purchasing the REC was “the only financially responsible way for us to get solar power.”

“Basically we could buy three types of energy; there’s ‘dirty energy,’ which isn’t renewable at all, there’s ‘green energy’ which is from a renewable source like solar panels that you buy with the REC so you can call it green, and there’s ‘olive energy,’ which is technically renewable energy but we can’t call it that because we don’t own the RECs,” she said. “So we buy ‘olive energy,’ which isn’t green, but it’s better than dirty energy.”

Cohen-Rosenthal hopes to use the money saved by not purchasing the RECs to encourage energy efficiency around campus.

“For all this talk about ‘green’ kilowatt hours, and ‘olive’ kilowatt hours, the best kind of kilowatt hour is the one we don’t use,” she said.