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Buying Green Power and Renewable Energy Certificates

Purchasing green power or renewable energy certificates (RECs) provides a relatively simple way for a campus to supply some of its electricity with renewable energy.

The following links go to sections that describe how green power and RECs may fit into your climate action plans.

Green power represents a sale of electricity generated from renewable energy resources by a local utility or power service provider. RECs represent the environmental benefits derived from renewable energy projects; they are sold as a commodity separately from the electricity. Both green power and RECs are sold in blocks of megawatt-hours (MWh). To convert RECs into the more typical units of tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, the carbon content of electric power at your campus must be considered. The EPA Green Power Equivalency Calculator will help you convert RECs to carbon or other units.

The economics of green power and RECs purchases vary greatly, depending on the renewable technology involved, location, incentives, and the size of the purchase. You can read a comprehensive guide to renewable energy purchase agreements, RECs, and on-site renewable energy generation titled, EPA Guide to Purchasing Green Power.

Today, every state and many well-established national markets purchase green power. However, its intangible nature requires the purchaser to exercise some care regarding the nature of the purchase. Green-e, a certification program for green power providers, requires purchasers to provide accurate data to demonstrate their accountability.

Campus Options for Purchasing RECs and Green Power

There are several green power and REC purchasing options:

Photo of an REC with the name Pure Wind at the top.

Pure Wind issued one of the first U.S. RECs in 2001. Today, most REC purchases take place via commodity markets and are handled electronically.
Credit: Kevin Eber

  • Green Pricing Programs of Regulated Utilities: Green pricing represents a product offered by the local utility in states with regulated electric utilities. It allows customers to purchase a portion of their power supply from renewable energy, almost always at a premium, or to contribute funds for the utility to invest in renewable energy projects. The premium covers the incremental cost of the additional renewable energy.

    This option is simple for campus participation because it involves an existing relationship with the utility.

    Currently, more than 750 U.S. utilities offer green pricing products to their customers. To learn whether your utility has such a program, consult the list of utility green pricing programs by state published online by the the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Green Power Network.

  • Competitive Renewable Power: In states with competitive electricity markets, research campuses can purchase electricity generated from renewable energy resources from their power provider or through competitive electricity procurements.

    Currently more than a dozen states have competitive electric power markets where companies offer competitive green power offerings. Read a list of green power products by state published by the Green Power Network.

  • Renewable Energy Certificates: RECs purchases represent one of the easiest ways for a campus to meet its carbon reduction goals. No contractual agreements are needed and no physical implementation is required. Today there are dozens of REC providers, most of which operate in deregulated national markets. Like their green power counterparts, most REC providers certify with Green-e. The Green Power Network publishes a list of REC products with their associated premiums.

Considerations for Buying Green Power on Campus

Before undertaking an assessment of green power purchases, a research campus should ask these questions:

Are green power and RECs purchases right for your campus?
  • Do you need flexibility for the size of your commitment?
  • Does your campus need to supplement other measures to reach climate neutrality?
  • Do you want to demonstrate a commitment to renewable energy?
  • Does your power provider offer green power?

Flexibility and Immediate Impact

A green power purchase is one of the few steps you can take that generates immediate reductions in carbon emissions. And it is scalable to your immediate needs. On the low end, you can use it offset the energy use of a single laboratory or research program. On the high end, you can size the purchase to cover the electricity consumption of the entire campus.

Supplementing Measures

Even after completing the most aggressive energy conservation measures, you will still have some electricity consumption. Green power and RECs purchases can offset this remaining demand to meet the goals of your climate action plans.

Visible Commitment to Renewable Energy

Perhaps because of its immediate impact, green power purchases tend to receive a great deal of positive publicity and are viewed favorably by the public. Part of this response is due to the efforts of national programs supporting green power, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Green Power Partnership, which recognizes participating organizations through awards, initiatives, etc.

Local Offering

If your electric utility offers a green pricing product, administering a purchase will be simple and straightforward. If you live in a state with deregulated power markets, you can select the green power provider with the best offer. Often these products from established providers derive their electricity from local renewable energy projects that are well known and easily identifiable by local campus constituents.

Leading Example: Pennsylvania State University Green Power Purchase

Photo of seven white wind turbines on a snow-covered hilltop. A truck is at the base of one turbine.

Community Energy offers green power in Pennsylvania and several other East Coast states. The power is produced at the Bear Creek Wind Farm in Pennsylvania's Pocono Region. Each turbine is rated at 2 megawatts (MW).
Courtesy of Community Energy, Inc.

Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) in State College, Pennsylvania, is among the largest purchasers of green power in the United States. The university began by purchasing wind power produced by Community Energy in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, but recently expanded its renewable energy portfolio to include biomass, low-impact hydropower, and wind power from other areas of the United States. This expansion and diversification allowed the university to negotiate significantly lower rates for green power purchases.

In total, green power purchases account for 20% (17.6 million kilowatt-hours [kWh]) of Penn State's electricity consumption. These purchases are implemented through Green-e certified five-year contracts. The university is also a member of the EPA's Green Power Partnership, where it has been recognized in the Top 20 College and University online list.

More information about Penn State's green power purchases is available on its Web site.

Other examples of research campuses buying green power include:

  • University of Pennsylvania: In 2009, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia became the nation's largest purchaser of green power and RECs, accounting for 50% of campus electricity consumption.

  • Colorado State University: The university's housing and dining services implemented a program allowing students to buy wind power for dormitory electricity consumption.

  • The State University of New York at Buffalo: The campus has purchased all the wind power generated by a 1.5 MW turbine since 2002 and increased to 7 designated turbines by 2004. In 2009 UB purchased RECs equivalent to 15% of their electric use.

  • Western Washington University: Western Washington researches and selects REC sources to optimize the impact of each purchase. Recent purchases helped fund wind farms in North Dakota.

  • Connecticut College: A $25 per year student surcharge allows the campus to offset 100% of its annual electricity purchases through Green-e certified wind power RECs. This program gained recognition through the EPA College and University Green Power Challenge.

  • Santa Clara University: Invested in a renewable energy program run by the local utility, which purchases RECs to offset more than 8 million kWh of electricity.