For only $15, a busy shopper can pluck a wind-power card off the rack by the checkout counter at Whole Foods, good for 750 kilowatt-hours – the average amount of electricity sucked off the grid by an American family each month.
So, for about the cost of two tickets to a Friday-night flick, this environmentally savvy consumer has just become 100 percent wind-powered for the month, having the same effect as planting 13 trees or not driving 1,286 miles.
At least that’s what Boulder-based Renewable Choice Energy, which markets the cards, claims.
Sound too good to be true? A growing number of skeptics think so. Critics argue that renewable-energy credits – the commodity that the cards actually represent – are just a way for people to absolve their environmental guilt by throwing money at it instead of making any meaningful changes to their lifestyles. But supporters of the credits say the revenue they generate is essential to helping the fledgling renewable-energy industry get off the ground.
“A lot of people are dubious about RECs,” said Kevin Doran, senior research fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Energy and Environmental Security. “When you go through a grocery store line and you buy a card and it says, ‘With this card you’ve helped us purchase wind power, and because you’ve done that, it’s the equivalent of planting X amount of trees or the equivalent of not having done something’ – that is a very suspicious statement.”
Every time a kilowatt-hour of electricity is generated by a wind farm, a renewable-energy credit is also produced. The idea is that the credit represents the value of clean energy – the benefits of dumping less pollution and greenhouse gases into the air than traditional electricity sources.
So people who are using energy in their homes or businesses derived from burning fossil fuels can buy the same number of renewable-energy credits as the number of kilowatt-hours they use, thereby “offsetting” their environmental impacts.
Many businesses that have offset the entire amount of energy they use advertise themselves as 100 percent wind-powered. Of course, it’s likely the actual electricity turning on the lights in their buildings isn’t from a wind farm.
One of the problems, according to critics, is that RECs smack of checkbook environmentalism – or the concept that anyone can be green without changing behaviors if they have enough money.
But because renewable-energy credits are a relatively cheap and easy way to absolve a company’s negative environmental impacts, even when other measures as simple as recycling or energy efficiency may not be used, customers are going to quickly become desensitized to wind-power claims, says Darrin C. Duber-Smith, president of Green Marketing Inc. in Nederland, Colo.
“We call it ‘greenwashing,'” said Duber-Smith, who also teaches classes on sustainability at the Metropolitan State College of Denver and the University of Colorado. “There’s going to be a big backlash to greenwashing coming up real soon. If a company is buying wind credits and then they don’t recycle – come on, consumers notice this.”
In the case of renewable-energy credits, there are two claims concerning critics: that buying an REC actually adds power to the grid that wasn’t there before; and that the credits directly eliminate carbon dioxide.
Renewable-energy credits are not created until the power is produced. So electricity from wind energy makes it onto the grid whether or not a renewable-energy credit is purchased right away.