NREL and Amazon Aim To Create Guidebook for Emissions Impact Analysis
Improved Modeling Will Help Clean Energy Buyers Better Estimate Their Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Corporations are starting to pay close attention to their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but current calculations only provide a coarse estimate of their entire GHG emissions.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Amazon, the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy worldwide since 2020, are working to modernize GHG emissions quantification using higher-resolution data and longer-term modeling. The pair are collaborating on a guidance document and new data sets, published by NREL, that will allow corporations to make better-informed decisions around their respective GHG emissions.
The project will build upon the capabilities of NREL’s Cambium data sets—which contain modeled hourly emission, cost, and operational data for the U.S. electricity sector—by introducing longer-term forward-looking analysis and considering potential emissions of major corporate projects, such as a new data center or facility. The improved emissions modeling will cover a variety of representative projects that companies can reference for their own analyses.
“Our purpose is to inject more and better information into decision-making,” said Pieter Gagnon, principal investigator and lead developer of Cambium. “This framework should give clean energy buyers more accurate data to maximize the emissions reduction impact of their investments.”
The Long-View of Emissions
NREL’s modeling improvements are based on the idea of “induced structural change”—the idea that a new project will influence the grid and, therefore, GHG emissions. For example, if a company builds a new facility, it may induce the construction of new clean generation. If the new project is built in Iowa where there is great wind resource, then the long-term GHG emissions impact will be even more favorable.
“Adding electrical load has the potential to induce the construction of more non-emitting generators, such as wind and solar,” Gagnon explained. “Any metric that is intended to comprehensively measure emissions would need to capture this phenomenon.”
In a 2022 publication, Gagnon and Wesley Cole of NREL demonstrated that the long-run marginal emission rate, which captures both operational and structural impacts on emissions, outperforms current metrics in accurately estimating GHG emission impacts. Gagnon and team have integrated the metric at a state level into Cambium and will apply it to several sample cases in this latest project, such as data centers, fulfillment centers, or grocery stores. The application to data centers is especially important to research, as these investments are somewhere between medium and long term.
“We want to know that we’re making decisions that maximize avoided emissions and minimize induced emissions,” said Arno van den Haak, principal clean energy analyst at Amazon. “With Pieter’s help, we’ll look at a range of interventions and provide a handbook that can help others determine their overall effect on emissions.”
NREL’s Scenario Viewer provides an easy method to visualize and navigate the Cambium data sets, eventually including the new data developed as part of this project. Users can choose their data scenario, analyze different graph forms of the data, download the data, and use this information to assist them in making decisions about when and how to procure clean energy.
NREL’s intent is to provide users with the most accurate resources available for their decision-making. However, these new emissions metrics also play into a wider conversation about the future of how emissions are tracked, how renewable energy is valued, and how to modernize the multibillion-dollar marketplace of renewable energy credits.
The Future of Emissions Accounting
Emissions accounting underpins much of the clean energy economy. For example, although a solar power plant in California cannot send physical renewable power to a data center in North Carolina, it can send renewable energy certificates, and these intangible units of clean electricity are procured by over 400,000 companies, utilities, and other organizations to buy-down their environmental impact. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol, the GHG accounting and management standard used by companies around the globe, is updating its guidance based upon a wealth of new research conducted over the past decade, and this NREL-Amazon project may contribute to that update.
“Carbon emissions from electricity generation vary based on time and location, which makes measuring them complicated. By looking at the right data and taking advantage of advances in cloud computing, we can now improve our understanding of the emissions impact of our energy consumption and our clean-energy purchases,” van den Haak said. “Until now, the industry has really been using a proxy for emissions, but with credit to Cambium data sets, we’ve been getting new insights over the past couple years.”
Amazon is the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy globally and has been for the last three years, according to a recent report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. That is why Amazon has announced the creation of the Emissions First partnership of companies, which includes some of the world’s largest buyers of renewable energy: Meta, General Motors, Heineken, Intel, and Salesforce, who are coming together to support important updates to the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. The coalition of organizations supporting the effort—many of which are voluntarily procuring clean energy beyond state requirements—could find this project’s outcomes useful to framing a standardized emissions accounting protocol for adoption.
“NREL’s Cambium data already provides a proven track record of insights and forward planning for organizations to assess impacts on grid decarbonization,” van den Haak said. “We anticipate that this collaboration will gather the most accurate view of emissions impact possible, in turn allowing electricity users to make clear, high-impact emission reduction decisions in their businesses.”
In addition to procuring renewable energy credits, organizations will benefit from a reporting framework that is updated and reflects the most current research when making decisions around energy efficiency, electric load shifting, and investment in technologies like electric vehicles.
“Understanding how corporate actions can influence emissions is a necessary part of the conversation around emissions reporting,” Gagnon said. “We look forward to contributing to the conversation, to help give the industry confidence that emission reduction claims made by organizations are accurate and impactful.”
Learn more about NREL’s analysis work.