Green energy supply: source or invest?

A growing number of companies adopts renewable energy goals and commits to green energy supply. Top of the bill might be Ikea, that has committed to produce as much renewable electricity as it consumes in its industrial sites, storage sites and shops by 2020. Apple is approaching the 100% renewable electricity supply rapidly, and was already at 93% in 2015. And here’s just a handful of famous company names that have committed to the symbolic 100% renewable electricity supply by 2020 target:

Swiss RE, Bank of America, BMW, British Telecom, Coca Cola, Goldman Sachs, ING, La Poste, Phillips Lighting, Sky Entertainment, UBS, Unilever

(These names and much more information on corporate renewable energy efforts can be found on the RE100 website.)

With a climate change denying Trump administration in the US, one could easily be pessimistic about the prospects of greening the world’s energy supply. However, I believe that the renewable energy revolution is a train that is rolling and can’t be stopped in its tracks:

  1. A large part of the public is convinced that climate change is a real problem. Companies feel a pressure to present green energy credentials to clients, current and future employees, investors, or they just go green because of an inborn sense of social responsibility.
  1. The costs of building renewable energy generation has dropped spectacularly. Energy from windmills now costs between 52 and 110 euro per MWh, according to Wind Europe. That is 48 to 102 dollars at the current exchange rate. Electricity from photovoltaics looks even more spectacular. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, a project in Dubai that was commissioned in May 2016 will produce power from the sun for a cost as low as 30 dollar per MWh.

In many places in the world, the all-in cost of consuming electricity from the grid is higher, making it profitable to generate on-site green electricity rather than buying from the grid.

For feeding the green electricity into the grid, the 110 euro per MWh needed for some windmill projects, might still be too high for the investment to make business sense. Subsidies and governments willing to grant them to windmills and solar panels might still be needed for the time being. But then the energy industry has always been subsidized. The UK will pay EdF 92,50 pound sterling per MWh for building a nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point, that’s a 107,54 euro per MWh. Isn’t that money more wisely spend on windmills?

Renewable energy is also playing a crucial role in bringing electricity to poor countries. Access to green electricity in remote regions, isolated from reliable grids, can be crucial for those regions’ development. The recent acceleration of growth of renewables in developing countries is likely to continue.

If Donald Trump thinks that his skeptic approach to greening energy supply is part of his businessman’s attitude to the presidency, then he is mistaken. A 21st century businessman integrates green energy supply goals in his corporate strategy, because they make business sense. As an energy buyer, the chances that you will be asked to buy green energy are increasing and they will continue to do so, whether Mr. Trump is in the White House or not.

Getting that question on greening the energy supply confronts the energy buyer with an important dilemma:

Will you go green by sourcing green electricity from the grid or by investing in your own green electricity production? To give an answer to this question, we have to make some considerations:

  1. The physics and logistics of electricity supply make it difficult to label

Many years ago, we researched the green energy options of a client of ours. One of their team members kept insisting that he wanted proof that the green electricity was coming from a particular windmill near their factory. Due to the physics of electricity it’s impossible to do this. You cannot produce MWh’s in your windmill and attach a label to them saying: “Electricity from windmill so-and-so, to be delivered to company so-and-so”.

Electricity supply works by keeping the tension on the grid at a constant level by injecting as much electricity into the grid as the end-consumers are collectively consuming. But there is nothing that is physically being moved from place A to B. Therefore, it is impossible to say where the MWh’s that you consume were produced.

To deal with this, systems such as the European ‘certificates of origin’, have introduced a double marketing system. Producers of green electricity in Europe receive a certificate of origin. This is a piece of paper that says that a MWh of electricity was produced by a windmill, solar panel, by hydro, geothermal, biomass, etc.

The green electricity producer will sell electricity twice. The product itself (often called the “grey electricity”) goes to the grid at market prices. Next to that, the producer will make some extra income by selling the certificates of origin in a separate market.

Energy suppliers buy these certificates and bundle them with the physical MWh’s that they supply in green electricity products. That doesn’t mean that the power you consume comes from a particular windmill or solar panel. It means that as a consumer you have made an extra investment to support renewable energy. Some consumers have taken the labeling logic a step further by buying certificates of origin themselves in quantities equal to their physical consumption.

  1. Green comes in many shades

More than 20 years ago, I read a book of which I vaguely remembered the title to be “Grass instead of atoms”. It envisioned a future in which all of the world’s energy would be supplied by biomass. The theory was that biomass is carbon-neutral, as the carbon dioxide produced by burning the plant material would be compensated by the CO2 sucked from the air by the growing plants. Green activists embraced the biomass idea heartily.

Twenty years later, the world and definitely the green movement has grown much less enthusiast about biomass:

  1. Due to its low calorific content, you need a lot of plant material to produce a reasonable amount of energy. This causes huge logistic problems.
  2. Not the least of it being the huge amounts of land that you need to produce sufficient biomass for supplying the world with energy. Land that in many cases could be used better to grow food. And land that was sometimes won by cutting down valuable, bio-diverse and more carbon-sucking rain forest. Next to that there are the environmental issues caused by monoculture. Very rapidly, we discovered that the world would not be better off if the whole equatorial zone was transformed into a massive palm oil plantation.
  3. The theory of the carbon-neutrality of biomass can be challenged, especially if you cut rain-forest to plant palm oil and when you ship your biomass halfway across the globe.

Many well-intentioned biomass projects have ended in a public relations nightmare due to the questionable environmental credits of burning plant material. To investors’ horror the environmental groups that push for more green energy are often the first ones to raise protest against specific projects. Think about the many times local green activists have raised protests against the construction of a windmill.

The certificates of origin are granted to any green electricity project, regardless of its real environmental merits. If you consider going ‘deep green’, you might make some extra investments by buying some higher quality certificates.

  1. Buying green electricity is very cheap

In Europe, you can currently buy certificates of origin. That is very cheap. The reason for this low price is simple: demand is lower than supply. Every MWh of green electricity produced in Europe gets a certificate. At this moment, 29% of all electricity produced in Europe is green (2015 data coming from Agora Energiewende). As long as all the citizens, companies, public authorities, etc. that buy green electricity consume collectively less than 29% of all electricity consumed in Europe, the demand for green electricity will be lower than the supply. Hence the low price of buying green electricity.

If your only interest in buying green electricity is “green-washing”, getting the paper on the wall to say that you buy green so that you can satisfy the customers that are asking for it, the low price of green electricity is good news. However, many customers have a more genuine interest, more serious intentions of making a valuable contribution to the environment. For them, just spending a few ten thousands of euros or dollars on certificate-buying will not be very satisfying.

Moreover, a public relations catastrophe is looming again. Environmentalists are increasingly aware of how easy and cheap it is to claim ‘100% renewable electricity’ by buying certificates of origin. Clients that involve NGO’s in their sustainability policy (e.g. through the WWF Climate Savers initiative), already feel that pressure to do something more valuable than buying 15 cent per MWh certificates of origin.

  1. Not all green electricity is good for the environment

Certificates of origin don’t work as a tool for putting pressure on energy companies to increase their green electricity production. But it works as a system for having companies with green intentions invest money in greenery. Unfortunately, that money isn’t always effective.

An effective investment in green electricity means that less carbon dioxide is emitted. Very often, the money you pay for certificates of origin goes to an old hydro power station or a windmill, solar panel or biomass power station that have been there already for many years. For hydro, wind and solar, the marginal cost of production is 0, meaning that their owners produce the electricity whenever they can. Bringing us to the startling conclusion:

Whether you pay for the certificate of origin or not, the green electricity would have been produced anyhow.

So, your effort to pay extra for the certificates of origin isn’t keeping a gram of carbon dioxide out of the air. You could solve this by buying higher quality certificates. However, if you invest every euro you spend to source green electricity in your own renewable energy production, you are effectively keeping CO2 out of the air. It will mean that a windmill, solar panel or other project gets built thanks to your efforts that pushes fossil-fuel fired MWh’s from the grid. As the investment costs to produce your own energy are so much larger than what you spend buying certificates, it might be financially impossible to achieve the symbolic 100% renewable goal. But the money is spent so much more wisely and with a net better effect on the environment.

  1. Sourcing means spending money without return, contrary to investing

Which brings us to a next observation. Spending money on certificates is just that, spending. Investing money means that you can expect a return on your euros or dollars. On-site renewable energy production is often developed by a third party with a power purchase agreement. In many cases you will receive a fixed amount of money for renting your terrain or rooftop. Next to that, you can buy the electricity at a price far below the price at which you buy from the grid. Such projects always lead to savings, and thanks to such third party arrangements without even having to invest the company’s money.

When you invest in off-site renewable energy projects, the return will depend on the particular set-up, and often on the subsidy arrangement. In many cases, renewable energy is an interesting investment as the return is relatively stable and reliable.

  1. What do you want to achieve with your green energy efforts?

As you can read from the observations above, greening your energy takes more reflection than just buying a green power product based on certificates of origin. Investing the money in your own green electricity production is a more valuable approach, both for the environment and for your financial bottom line. However, not every company might be ready to have such large amounts of cash flowing to green power investments.

As an energy buyer, your research of the energy markets can lead to more valuable choices for your company. To determine your approach, it is worthwhile to make a good preliminary analysis of what you want to achieve with your green energy efforts, e.g. through a stakeholder analysis. If you’re just greening to satisfy customers, you might be happy with the certificates of origin. If you also want to prove your green credentials to environmentalists, you might decide to go deeper.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s