March 29, 2015

The Lie of “100% Renewable”

It’s been recently reported that Georgetown “plans to be the first city in Texas entirely powered by renewable energy”. Of course, “plans to be” is a long way from “is”, but the first problem in most such reports is that they are talking only about electrical energy. Other energy consumption, such as for heating and transport, is not affected, so it is misleading indeed to say “entirely powered by renewable energy”.

Earlier this year, it was more accurately reported that the city of Burlington, Vermont, “became the first in the country to use 100 percent renewable energy for its residents’ electricity needs”. The news was further spread with far less care (and predictably) as, e.g., “the first city in the U.S. to be powered 100 percent by renewables”. Again, it is about electricity only, which is only about a third of our overall energy use. (Note should also be taken of the qualifier of “residents’ needs”: The University of Vermont, for example, is not included in this accounting.)

Even stated accurately, however, it remains misleading. Georgetown will be purchasing wind and solar power from faraway facilities. That means that they will in fact be using the same electricity on the grid as neighboring towns. The decision was strictly financial, not because wind and solar are cheaper, but because the country as a whole subsidizes them and the required new powerlines so that they can sell the power relatively cheaply. Furthermore, for Georgetown to find the price particularly attractive, as well as considering their non-ideological view, they will probably not be buying the Enron-invented “renewable energy credits”, i.e., they will not actually have the “right” to claim the purchase as “renewable”. (Instead, someone else, who also gets the same electricity from the grid as everyone else, will buy the RECs to claim the “green credit”.)

Sale of RECs also benefits Burlington, which sells them for its woodchip-fired plant and their ownership of wind plants in Georgia and Sheffield. Technically, they can therefore no longer claim that electricity themselves as “renewable”, although they account for almost two-thirds of the city’s electricity. As Burlington Electric itself shows, in 2013, ignoring their selling of RECs, 95% of their electricity was renewably sourced. After selling the RECs, that percentage dropped to 39%. And 67% of that was represented by the purchase of RECs.

Again, everything these cities do not generate themselves is taken from the regional grid, a pool of electrical energy that does not distinguish among its many sources. Georgetown will be using the same electricity as its “nonrenewable” neighbors. Burlington generates about half of its own electricity from wood chips, a little hydro, and negligible solar and wind. The rest is from the same pool as its “less renewable” neighbors.

And besides the charade of exclusive claims on renewable electricity that everyone shares equally on the grid, electricity is itself only about a third of their total energy use.