April 9, 2006

The woolly world of green tags

On Alternet's April 5 Wiretap, Holly Beck posted an interview with Guster guitarist Adam Gardner about the band's impressive effort to minimize the carbon emissions and other impacts of their next tour, notably by running their bus on vegetable oil. But then there's this:

We're also offsetting each concert's power consumption. We've partnered with NativeEnergy, which is a Native American–owned wind power company, and they are assessing how many kilowatt-hours each concert is consuming. We'll then replenish the grid with that amount of clean power. So it's not like we're directly powering my electric guitar with a wind turbine it's an offset that happens afterwards."
How exactly is the electricity "offset"?

Say they use 1,000 kWh, which they (or the concert venues) buy from the local utilities. Then they buy 1,000 kWh of wind energy "green tags" (also called "renewable energy certificates") from Native Energy. But since they're not the ones using it, the actual 1,000 kWh of wind energy still goes to the grid. Native Energy sells it twice.

If Guster didn't buy the green tags, nothing would be different: the same 1,000 kWh of wind-generated electricity would have entered the grid, and Guster would have used the same 1,000 kWh of nonrenewable electricity. Where is the "offset"?

According to Native Energy, of Charlotte, Vermont (which was founded in August 2000 and has been majority-owned by the midwestern Intertribal Council on Utility Policy only since August 2005),
To get the extra revenues they need, some wind farms sell "Green Tags," which are a widely traded commodity that consists of the rights to claim the emissions reductions and other environmental benefits of green electricity. Green Tags became a commodity because people who want to buy green electricity often don't have it available to them. The industry [Enron, actually] developed Green Tags so everybody can achieve the same environmental benefits by buying Green Tags to offset the pollution caused by their consumption of electricity generated by fossil fuels. Environmentally, buying Green Tags (and ordinary electricity from your utility) is the same as buying green electricity. [emphasis added]

Compare Green Tags to green electricity ...
That comparison explains the imaginary separation of the energy from its attributes and gives lie to the claim emphasized above. If one dares to think clearly, they are obviously not separate entities. If the energy from wind turbine generators goes into the grid and reduces energy from other sources, then that alone is its environmental attribute. If the attribute -- the "green tag" -- is then sold separately, it is clearly meaningless.

Here's another way to look at it. If the energy from wind turbines is not purchased, then it is not contributing to the grid and therefore not affecting other sources. The turbines would have to shut down and there would be no ability to claim an environmental benefit. If, however, the energy is sold, then it is part of the mix on the grid and the producer can claim the benefit. If, however, the green tags aren't sold, there is no change in the effect on the grid, which depends only on whether the actual energy is sold. Similarly, if the green tags are indeed sold there is no extra benefit created on the grid.

Or put yet another way: You can sell the energy without the green tags, but not the other way around. The energy is the attribute. To sell the attribute in addition to the energy is a confidence game.

Native Energy goes even further -- selling 25 years of green tags from wind turbines that haven't even been built yet (and that if they are built will not necessarily generate as much electricity as the green tags already sold, let alone actually reduce carbon emitted from other sources):
Most Green Tag providers sell them as they are generated by existing generators, and will only commit to buy few year’s of Green Tags from the wind farm. We took a new approach, using Green Tags to help build new wind farms. We seek out wind farms under development that need to be sure of long-term Green Tag revenues to complete development. On behalf of our WindBuilders participants, we use our patent-pending business process to buy -- in advance -- all the Green Tags to be generated by the wind farms over their expected operating life -- usually 25 years. This provides critically important up-front financial support and so helps get these wind farms up and running. ... Each of our WindBuilders participants buys a share of the wind farm’s Green Tags on this same long-term basis. That way your purchase helps finance new wind farms, and so helps create new environmental benefits.
They're selling shares in future wind power facilities but without the worry of ever having to return the investment. The final step in the "patent-pending" charade is in the clear explanation that the "buyer" doesn't even get anything:
Clean Air–Cool Planet has agreed with NativeEnergy to accept all the Green Tags purchased by WindBuilders members. Also, Clean Air–Cool Planet promises to you that they will "retire" your green tags, which means that they will never be sold to someone who would otherwise buy more green tags or who would use them instead of reducing their own emissions.
The wind turbine owners are clearly able to get away with selling the "attributes" twice, but any more would clearly be a bit much. The good people at Native Energy very honestly take your money and then have a third party certify that what you bought is now nonexistent.

Which it was all along.

wind power, wind energy, wind farms, Vermont, environment, environmentalism, sustainability, green energy, green living, green business, carbon offset, ecoanarchism