BUZZARDS BAY – When news first broke about a wind turbine on the Massachusetts Maritime Academy campus, Adm. Richard Gurnon received a slew of calls from companies offering to purchase the college’s RECs, or renewable energy credits.
Gurnon, who is president of the college, was confused.
“I thought they were talking about wrecked, old cars and I told them we didn’t have any,” he said.
After lots of self-education, Gurnon learned that green energy initiatives are not only good for the environment, but are also a way to generate new revenue.
Basically, buying a REC lets a company or individual buy the rights to the environmental benefits of a renewable energy source. REC owners can legally claim to have purchased renewable energy.
The main incentive for buying RECs is being able to claim carbon neutral energy use, which does not contribute to global warming.
According to the state Division of Energy Resources, a retailer that sells electricity must designate a minimum of 3
percent of its total annual sales as renewable energy. Therefore, electricity producers that don’t generate enough “green” energy on their own must purchase RECs to offset their energy use. They buy the RECs from institutions that produce “clean energy” by using wind, water, sunlight or geothermal methods to name a few, Gurnon said.
The MMA campus joined the ranks of clean energy producers in 2006, when it became home to a 660-kilowatt wind turbine. The project cost $1.6 million, but has already provided financial benefits for the Buzzards Bay college, including the RECs.
The turbine provides about 25 percent of MMA’s electricity and saves the school more than $200,000 annually, according to the school’s Web site.
The 248-foot turbine produces renewable energy, which is sent to the grid controlled by ISO New England, the company that makes sure electricity is equally distributed throughout New England.
Over the course of the past year, the MMA turbine has generated an estimated 1,100 megawatt-hours of electricity.
Since one megawatt-hour equals a single REC, the school also generated 1,100 RECs.
In a few months, the college will hire a broker to auction the RECs in what will be MMA’s second auction. With the going rate hovering around $57 per REC, the college could raise more than $60,000 at auction. Last time, the turbine hadn’t been in operation for very long and the school received about $22,000 for those RECs.
Gurnon likened the process to the stock market.
“Think of it like pork bellies,” Gurnon said. “We put our commodity on the open market, there’s a bidding process and then we sell them.”
The need for RECs came into the forefront in 2002, when the state Division of Energy Resources set up rules governing how much renewable energy electric retailers must produce. The Renewable Energy Portfolio standard created a fluctuating minimum level of renewable energy for producers.
In 2003, electricity producers were required to have 1 percent of their load be renewable energy. That requirement increased to 3 percent this year and will increase to 4 percent by 2009. After that, the DOER will increase the percentage by one point annually at its discretion.
Eric Friedman, director of the Leading by Example program at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said the legislation simply sets up a system where buying a REC means you’re buying the environmental part of a specific project that has generated renewable energy.
While electricity retailers are mandated to participate, Friedman said, homeowners can voluntarily buy RECs as a way to preserve the environment.
But he warns homeowners to be sure to buy RECs that have been reviewed by a third party, whose job it is to make sure RECs are directly attributable to a project that’s really generating renewable energy.
Companies such as Green-e and the Climate Neutral Network assist in certifying and verifying RECs and other greenhouse gas mitigation products.
Maggie Downey, administrator for the Cape Light Compact, said the RECs are important because they encourage people and businesses to get into the renewable energy game.
The Compact, which negotiates power contracts for roughly 180,000 Cape customers, bought the college’s RECs last year in order to support local developers of renewable energy products.
“If the developer wasn’t getting RECs and you looked at the pro forma business plan then the finances for something like a wind turbine wouldn’t work,” Downey said. “But RECs help to create the market for renewable energy projects because they can help finance them.”
The maritime college is a perfect example, Gurnon said, because every dime made from renewable energy is being poured back into new green initiatives.
For example, there are 81-kilowatt photovoltaic solar panels on the roof of MMA’s new dorm. Those panels will add to the school’s number of RECs. Gurnon said he hopes plans for the school’s new library will include energy-efficient systems as well.
Now, experts say there is a shortage of RECs because only a small number of electricity retailers are actually producing renewable energy. That’s good news for Gurnon, because prices for the RECs will remain high.
However, if a project such as Cape Wind is built in the area, Gurnon said “the REC market would collapse.”
In addition to RECs, Gurnon said, he has struck deals with ISO New England that benefit the college financially.
When electricity is in high demand during the summer, ISO New England pays the college a premium of about $5,000 to supply electricity directly to the grid for outside use.
Furthermore, the college has agreed to shed up to 350 kilowatts during peak times to help ISO New England avoid brownouts and blackouts.
That agreement could be worth up to $30,000 annually, Gurnon said, and is done by disconnecting power for a few hours to MMA’s training ship.
By Aaron Gouveia
18 November 2007
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