REC Market Jumps, but Still a Long Way to Go

on December 26, 2013 at 12:00 PM

 Germany Debates Renewable Energy Investements

In the United States, electricity generation is still the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions—more than 2,039 million tons a year. Although Americans are increasingly educated and passionate about climate issues, many still lack basic information about renewable energy, which can prevent them from taking action. In fact, NREL reports that although 80 percent of people surveyed agreed with the statement, “I care about use of renewable energy sources,”[1] yet renewable energy represented only 1.3 percent of all electricity sales in 2012.[2]

This percentage can be explained by a lack of awareness about how to purchase renewable energy, short of installing solar panels on the roof or a wind turbine in the backyard. In fact, only 14 percent of respondents in the aforementioned survey knew they could directly purchase renewable energy. The simple fact is that today, renewable energy is at our fingertips. More than half of all electric utility customers can access green power programs, and all consumers can purchase renewable energy through third-party providers that sell renewable energy certificates, or RECs.[3]

RECs are the rights to the environmental attributes of renewable energy, and can be bought and sold separately (as “unbundled” RECs) from electricity that is fed to the grid. They provide an additional revenue source for renewable energy producers and ensure that multiple parties cannot claim the benefits of the same renewable energy. REC markets allow consumers to buy cost-effective renewable energy from projects anywhere in the country, and in 2012, they accounted for more than 48 million MWh in electricity. However, while REC sales are growing rapidly—jumping 36 percent in recent years—they still represent a small share of total electricity sales.[4]

Much of the delay in adoption can be attributed to slow residential growth, despite the groundswell of support for renewable energy and sustainability. Recent studies show that only two percent of REC sales were to consumers; in this area, we expect to see significant growth in the coming years, as more consumers are educated on RECs.[5] Unbundled RECs offer a number of benefits to residential consumers, including:

  • No installation required. A recent survey found that almost half of U.S. consumers would not consider installing renewable energy equipment.[6]
  • No commitments or contracts. While solar, in particular, has made massive strides toward flexibility, defraying the upfront costs of these installations will always require long-term agreements.
  • Integration into existing utility service models. No interruptions in electricity service or complicated payment structures
  • Reliable way to support renewable energy generation

Individuals can take cues from a surprising group – corporations and institutions – which are actually ahead of the curve in purchasing renewable energy, and are driving the growth in this market. Overall, 78 percent of all green power sales are to non-residential customers.[7] Companies like Intel, Microsoft and Kohl’s purchased more than a million RECs last year, and the District of Columbia, the City of Austin and the Environmental Protection Agency all purchased at least 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources.[8]  These success stories are proof that REC sales can make a tremendous impact.

Consumers “greening” their purchasing decisions by supporting organizations that use RECs as a strategy for reducing carbon emissions should reflect on how they too can opt into renewable energy. Even small businesses that may feel they don’t have the resources to support renewables can purchase their energy from third-party REC providers or utility green power programs.

There are many different ways to support renewable energy and care for our environment; not just on-site production through solar panels and wind turbines. Instead, RECs offer a convenient and cost-effective tool to support renewable energy, today.

Jenna Allard is director of operations at Pear Energy, a nationwide provider of renewable energy via renewable energy certificates.