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Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets are generated by activities that reduce carbon emissions and are usually measured in metric tons. The following outlines conditions under which carbon offsets may fit into climate action plans for your research campus.

Similar to renewable energy certificates (RECs), purchases of carbon offsets are based on trust. However, the market for carbon offsets is less developed than that for green power and RECs. As yet, no universal standards or single certification body has emerged to serve this market in the United States. Instead, several organizations offer certification, so the buyer must carefully research a seller's claims for carbon reduction.

On the other hand, resources are available to help campus administrators evaluate carbon offsets. For example, the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment has developed a voluntary carbon offset protocol. And Clean Air Cool Planet publishes a report that discusses procedures for identifying projects with measurable carbon reduction, reveals market pitfalls for carbon offsets, and recommends vendors based on specific criteria. The report is titled, A Consumer's Guide to Retail Carbon Offset Providers.

Today, carbon offsets are widely available. For example, the Chicago Climate Exchange offers a pilot program for trading carbon offsets (also known as greenhouse gas emissions). And the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Green Power Network publishes a list of greenhouse gas offset products.

Carbon offsets require no contractual agreements and no physical implementation, so they present a way for research campuses to quickly meet greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Carbon Offset Options

Research campuses have two options for obtaining offsets: purchase them from a vendor or create their own programs locally.

  • Commodity Purchase: Campuses purchase carbon offsets on the open market from vendors that implement renewable energy and greenhouse gas reduction projects worldwide. Often, the vendors are nonprofit agencies whose purpose is to address climate change. The vendors set a value for the associated environmental benefits included in the offsets, which are then purchased by the research campus. This transaction funds the vendor and future projects.

    Because it is a commodity, the offset costs are unpredictable and are anticipated to rise in the future. As a result, annual offset purchases do not offer the benefit of reduced risk that result from a long-term green power purchase or on-site generation of renewable energy.

  • Local Offsets: Campuses create and implement local offset projects on their own. This provides a great deal of flexibility in terms of offset activities. Common activities include:

    • Tree planting
    • Organizing community gardens
    • Local renewable energy projects
    • Regional building efficiency initiatives
    • Regional vehicle efficiency initiatives
    • Public transportation improvements and publicity.

    Creating a local offset program can be a natural avenue for outreach education and enhanced community relations. There is ample opportunity for creativity in developing local offset programs for climate action plans. However, measuring and verifying actual emissions offset can be a challenge. Many activities have large gray areas that may require assumptions when environmental impacts are estimated.

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Considerations for Carbon Offsets

Research campuses should evaluate the following before purchasing carbon offsets.

Are local carbon offsets right for your campus?
  • Do you need additional carbon emissions reductions as a last measure?
  • Do you want to demonstrate leadership in climate neutrality?
  • Do you want to promote your measures within the local community?
  • Do you recognize potential projects in your community?

Additional Carbon Reductions

Even very diligent climate action plans often need supplemental offsets to meet milestones and goals when efficiency and renewable energy measures do not match energy demands. Carbon offsets can fill the gap.

Some research campuses lack the financing and physical resources to implement large-scale climate actions. Such campuses should evaluate carbon offsets to meet incremental climate goals.

Demonstrating Leadership

Purchasing carbon offsets generates immediate results that are well received by the public and campus constituencies. This allows you to immediately demonstrate progress toward climate neutrality and prove your commitment to leading climate-neutral activities.

Local Outreach and Promotion

Local offset programs lend themselves to local outreach education and enhanced community relations. Tying climate-neutral activities to outreach promotes your research campus as a valuable member of the local and global community.

Improving the Community

Offset programs can include community garden or park development, tree planting programs, or even helping to upgrade public transportation to hybrid or biodiesel buses. If your campus is committed to bettering the community, local offsets can be a win-win solution to realize that commitment.

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Leading Example: College of the Atlantic Carbon Offset Program

After extensive research and evaluation, the College of the Atlantic chose to use carbon offset to become carbon neutral. After implementing energy efficiency measures, the college took this final step in its strategic climate action plan.

The college purchased carbon offsets from the Carbon Fund and the Climate Trust, both of which offer contracts for specific emission reduction projects. The college selected offsets from two projects supported by the Climate Trust:

  • Traffic optimization project in Portland, Oregon, a 10-year project funded by the Climate Trust to adjust the timing of traffic lights at 17 high-traffic intersections in Portland. Portland sells the offsets generated by reducing fuel consumption from drivers stuck in traffic, and the Climate Trust, in turn, serves as the broker for the offsets. Portland receives payments based on its studies of how much the project relieves traffic congestion.

  • Truck stop electrification in Oregon and Washington, a 15-year project that involves creating and operating 275 parking spaces for big-rig trucks to plug into electric outlets when the drivers stop to rest. Having electric power for instrumentation, heating, and cooling allows truckers to turn their engines off during mandatory resting periods.

The College of the Atlantic can view these reports and evaluate its investment in a particular carbon reduction project accordingly. These projects would not have been financially practicable without the sale of offsets.

Other Examples of campuses obtaining carbon offsets include:

  • Ohio University: The university sponsors the Greenhouse Project, which offers assistance in the form of incentives and technical support to increase the efficiency of off-campus housing units. This is a example of campus outreach beyond the boundaries of their specific carbon inventory.

  • Unity College: In a partnership with the Maine State Housing Authority, Unity College purchases carbon offsets generated by energy efficiency programs in the housing authority. These campus/community partnerships offer mutual benefits in carbon reduction.

  • University of Florida: The university sponsors carbon offsets through local programs for weatherization and tree planting.

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Technology Basics

The following resource explains the fundamentals of carbon offsets:

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