Frequently Asked Questions
This page provides answers to common questions asked by consumers and potential renewable energy buyers, including specific questions regarding the Green-e certification program.
Renewable Energy Basics
Generators and Sellers
Q18. When do RECs expire?
Renewable Energy Basics
A: Renewable energy is energy derived from naturally derived sources that replenish themselves over a period of time without depleting the Earth’s resources. They also have the benefit of being abundant, available in some capacity nearly everywhere, and they cause little, if any, environmental damage. Energy from the sun, wind, and thermal energy stored in the Earth’s crust are examples. For comparison, fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas are not renewable, since their quantity is finite—once we have extracted them they will cease to be available for use as a viable energy source. While they are produced through natural processes, these processes are too slow to replenish these fuels as quickly as humans use them, so these sources will run out sooner or later.
A: Electricity generation is the leading cause of industrial air pollution in the U.S. Most of our electricity comes from coal, nuclear, and other non-renewable power plants. Producing energy from these resources takes a severe toll on our environment, polluting our air, land, and water. See also Why Renewable Energy?
on this Web site.
Renewable energy sources (solar electric, wind, geothermal, biomass, and small and low-impact hydro) can be used to produce electricity with fewer environmental impacts. It is possible to make electricity from renewable energy sources without producing CO2, the leading cause of global climate change. There is also relatively little renewable electricity generation in the U.S. (around 2% of total generation) because it is more expensive to build renewable generators and because renewables must be located where there is abundant and reliable sun, wind, or other renewable resources. Because of this, the price for renewables tends to be higher than for electricity generated from non-renewable resources.
A: Electricity is generated by using a fuel source, like the ones mentioned above (wind, coal, solar energy) in large generation facilities spread across the country. These generators may or may not be close to cities or other places with large electricity demand. These facilities are connected to electricity users (homes and businesses, for example) by a vast network of wires that transmit electricity; this network is commonly called “the electric grid” or just “the grid”. Electricity is bought from generators by electric service provider or electric utilities, who then resell the electricity to users to use in their lights, appliances, and other uses. Utilities often own and/or operate the wires that connect them with users, which is one way delivery to users can be controlled.
Because of the physics behind electricity transmission, generators are able to push electricity onto the grid but cannot choose a specific utility or user to deliver that electricity to. Think of a river made from many smaller tributaries—it is impossible to pull a cup of water out downstream and distinguish which tributary originally supplied it. In the same way, electricity produced from many sources becomes commingled once it’s on the grid and users can’t tell where their electricity was produced. Generators are constantly creating electricity and users are constantly drawing electricity off of the grid, and the path electricity takes is not at all direct.
Utilities often buy electricity from specific generators by signing a contract that specifies the amount of electricity the generator will put onto the grid at a specific time, and the utility pulls the same amount of electricity off the grid at that time. The contract also specifies that the utility is the only entity buying that particular electricity from that particular generator, which allows utilities to know what resources are being used to generate all of the electricity they buy.
Because there is little storage capacity when excess electricity is generated, utilities must match electricity supply and demand as closely as possible in real time, with excess electricity often being “dumped.” Because all electricity gets commingled on the grid, these contracts allow utilities to identify that the electricity they’ve promised to deliver to customers will be available when it’s needed, and allows the utility to report the types of generation used to generate the electricity that customers receive.
A: Renewable energy is bought just like any other electricity source, in that electricity is generated and put onto the grid, and a contract between the generator and electricity user is signed showing that the user is getting renewable electricity when they pull electricity off of the grid.
A utility delivering electricity to its customers know the mix of resource it has bought, and typically all customers get electricity from the same sources as one another. However, many consumers want the ability to choose a cleaner mix of electricity. Because electricity from wind power, for example, cannot be routed to one customer who chooses green power over another who doesn’t (see “How does electricity get delivered to my home or business?” above), a system needed to be devised to let power customers choose renewables, and send an unequivocal economic signal to build more wind farms and solar arrays.
The idea, first instituted in the late 1990s, was a pretty revolutionary one, and went like this: assign every megawatt hour of clean energy a unique serial number attached to a certificate, and then sell that certificate as the sole claim to that renewable generation, but independent of the actual electrons. This is basically the same idea as allowing an individual customer to buy the contract identifying electricity as coming from a particular source instead of the utility buying that contract. This way the renewable generator has two things it can sell: first, the undifferentiated electricity (it’s not “wind power” anymore, but electricity comingled on the grid with no identifying characteristics, no contract) to the local utility, and second, all the good environmental benefits of that electricity embodied in the renewable energy certificate (REC, the identifying contract), which can then be sold on national commodities markets. The final buyer of the REC has sole claim over the renewable attributes, and once the transaction takes place, the serial number is retired so no one else—not the state it was generated in, or even the owner of the wind farm—can claim the environmental benefits of that megawatt-hour of generation covered by the REC.
There’s no other system quite like it, but it works to provide an additional financial incentive to build renewable generation. Individuals and companies can buy renewable energy whether their utility offers it or not, and renewable energy generators get paid for the electricity they produce as well as for the fact that it doesn’t emit much or any carbon dioxide. The system of renewable energy certificates is effective as both a way to monetize the act of not polluting, and to incentivize new renewable development. All this in a market-based system of commodity trading where the market determines the price.
Renewable energy can be sold to residential, commercial, and wholesale customers as RECs or renewable electricity (where the REC is bundled with the actual electricity), and can be purchased from REC marketers or electric service providers, through utility green pricing programs or a broker, or directly from a generator.
A: Please see RECs 101 on this site.
A: A REC is documentation of the environmental benefits, but not the electrons, of a MWh of renewable electricity. A MWh of electricity with the REC stripped off of it is known as “null electricity” and takes on the average emissions associated with electricity generated the region in which it was produced that is not being used for RECs or other voluntary programs (see also “What is the difference between the Compliance and Voluntary Markets for renewable energy?” below).
Renewable electricity is a REC and a MWh of null power bundled into a single product. An electricity provider can combine RECs with an equivalent amount of electricity and offer their customers the resulting renewable electricity. Renewable electricity can be created with RECs and non-renewable electricity, or directly sourced from a renewable generator as a bundled electricity product.
A: This is a complex question, but in general, the difference is that a REC represents the environmental benefits of a MWh of renewable electricity generation, and so it can be said to “offset” the emissions of a single MWh of average electricity generation. A carbon offset can be matched with emissions from other sources of greenhouse gas emissions (not just electricity generation), like flying and driving.
A REC is a measure of the overall environmental benefits associated with the generation of 1 MWh of renewable electricity. These benefits include the fact that few if any greenhouse gases and other pollutants are being emitted from this generation.
A carbon offset is a reduction of greenhouse gasses measured in tons of carbon dioxide avoided, sequestered or destroyed. Because of issues of additionality (whether the action causing carbon dioxide to not be emitted is considered to be business as usual), only certain renewable energy facilities are eligible to sell carbon offsets as well as RECs from their generation. Green-e Climate has overseen the creation of a protocol for determining which renewable energy facilities are eligible to produce offsets; this protocol goes into much more depth about the differences, and similarities, between RECs and offsets.
A: The Compliance Market refers to the purchase of renewable energy in order to comply with a specific law or mandate. The compliance market is mostly comprised of sales made to meet Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) requirements that many states have implemented. These RPSs are goals for renewable energy generation. For example, California has a goal to increase its renewable portfolio to at least 20% by end of 2010 with a goal of 33% by end of 2020.
The Voluntary Market refers to purchases of renewable energy that are made above and beyond the minimum amounts that states require. A residential homeowner, for example, can sign up with their electric service utility to buy 100% renewable energy, instead of simply receiving the smaller amount of renewables they would get as part of the regular system mix. This additional renewable energy that was specifically purchased through the green pricing program does not count towards the electric service provider’s RPS obligations. These renewables purchased on the voluntary market can only be claimed by the purchaser, not the state or the utility with RPS obligations to meet. This same principle applies to RECs—that the final owner and user of the REC is the only entity that can claim the benefits of that renewable energy.
A: Green-e Energy is a consumer protection program designed to provide purchasers of renewable energy good product information, assurance of product quality and verification of product ownership. Please see the Consumer Protection portion of this site for more information on how Green-e Energy helps achieve this.
A: Wind, Solar, Geothermal, certain Hydroelectric and certain Biomass electricity-generation technologies can be used in a Green-e Energy Certified renewable energy product. Facilities producing electricity from these sources need to have been built within 15 years of the year customer purhcases the renewable energy. For further specifications on eligibility of resource and facility types and online dates, please see the Green-e Energy National Standard.
A: For Green-e Energy Certified renewable energy options, please use our renewable energy product search. This search engine allows you to describe what type of customer you are (residential if you’re buying for your home, or commercial if you’re buying for your business or institution) and what type of renewable energy product you are looking for. It then generates a list of marketers, electric service providers, or utilities that offer products with the characteristics you have selected. You can then contact the companies listed to inquire about purchasing a renewable energy product they offer. Green-e Energy doesn’t sell renewable energy or recommend one certified product over another.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, along with the Department of Energy (DoE), Center for Resource Solutions and World Resources Institute collaborated to write a Guide to Purchasing Green Power, which is useful for individuals and companies considering buying renewable electricity or RECs. The DoE also maintains a list of all sellers of renewable energy, including those that do not offer a Green-e Energy Certified option, through its Green Power Network.
A: “Carbon value” refers to claims about the number of tons of carbon dioxide that a renewable energy purchaser would have consumed if they had purchased regular electricity instead of buying renewable electricity or RECs. Purchasing renewables lowers the purchaser’s carbon footprint, but may not reduce global carbon emissions. The carbon equivalency of renewable energy use is often expressed as the number of trees planted or cars taken off the road that is equivalent to the emissions the purchase would otherwise have been responsible for. Please refer to the Green-e Energy Code of Conduct and see Section VII.B. for Green-e Energy rules around carbon equivalency claims. If you are participating in Green-e Marketplace, see that program’s rules as well. In addition, the US Environmental Protection Agency hosts a Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.
A: When a renewable energy product is sold as Green-e Energy Certified, it means that seller has a contract with Green-e Energy and agrees to abide by all Green-e Energy rules. The seller must undergo annual verification of its renewable energy supply and sales, and the product offered was generated by resources that are eligible under the Green-e Energy National Standard.
When renewable energy is represented as Green-e Energy certifiable, it means that in the seller’s opinion the renewable energy they are selling meets the eligibility criteria in the Green-e Energy National Standard. However, Green-e Energy certifiable does not mean that the seller has a contract with Green-e Energy, or that Green-e Energy has any insight into the seller’s sales. Green-e does not support the use of the term “Green-e Energy certifiable”. A REC might be referred to as Green-e Energy eligible instead, which avoids some confusion because it does not imply certification.
The term “Green-e Energy Eligible” also shows up in renewable energy tracking systems, and refers to the eligibility of a generation facility itself, not its RECs. Generation facilities that are registered in any of the tracking systems in the U.S. are able to have a check box in the facilities’ profiles indicating that the facilities meet the eligibility criteria in the Green-e Energy National Standard ticked (except ERCOT, which does not have such a box) . Before this box is ticked, a facility must submit a form to Green-e Energy for approval, and only if the form is accepted and accurately reflects eligibility under the National Standard does the “Green-e Energy Eligible” box get checked. All facilities that have submitted an approved Tracking Attestation (including such facilities in ERCOT) are listed on Green-e Energy Tracking Attestations Received (password required). The output of a facility with this box ticked may be used in Green-e Energy Certified sales, but the seller must still have an active contract with Green-e Energy in order for the sale to be certified.
For wholesale purchases made by existing participants in the Green-e Energy program, it is always best to be clear about whether the REC is eligible for use in a Green-e Energy certified sale or the facility has been approved as meeting the facility-level criteria in the Green-e Energy National Standard.
For all other buyers, because there are many facets to eligibility, the only way to be assured that renewable energy that you buy does meet all applicable criteria in the National Standard is to buy Green-e Energy certified. A list of sellers able to offer a Green-e Energy certified product can be found at green-e.org/buy.
To learn more, see Green-e “Certifiable” is NOT Green-e Certified [PDF]
A: Pricing is not a criterion for Green-e Energy certification of a renewable energy option, and so Green-e Energy does not have information on renewable energy pricing across the market. However, all sellers of Green-e Energy Certified renewable energy products must provide pricing information to potential customers as part of their Price, Terms, and Conditions disclosure requirements.
A: Under current Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building standards developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, points are awarded under the Green Power credit for purchases of RECs or renewable electricity that are Green-e Energy Certified or equivalent. The require purchase size ranges from 35-50% of the building’s electricity usage for two years. For more in depth LEED questions please contact the US Green Building Council.
A: Not by default. While purchasers of certified renewable energy may talk truthfully about their purchases, Green-e logo use is restricted to those participating in Green-e Marketplace, a logo-licensing program for commercial customers that wish to use the Green-e logo in association with their purchase. For more information about the program please see the Green-e Marketplace portion of this Web site. In some cases residential purchasers are allowed to display the logo in association with their purchase, though only through approved materials offered by their renewable energy provider.
A: Renewable electricity is an important element in addressing our overall environmental impact, but it is not the only tool we all have to address climate change. The first step is becoming more efficient and using fewer resources. This could mean driving less, using less electricity, buying fewer new things, composting, and recycling. The next step is using renewables for the electricity we do use, and other renewable energy sources for non-electricity energy use (for example, biodiesel or solar water heating). Using renewables is the best way to avoid the negative impacts of fossil fuel extraction, processing, burning, and disposal that come along with traditional sources of electricity. For other sources of emissions or pollution that you cannot avoid, most commonly from flying and driving, carbon offsets offer an option. Green-e Climate Certified offsets come from quality projects and retail products that have been certified under the same rigorous standards as Green-e Energy Certified renewable energy products.
Generators and Sellers
A: Green-e Energy Certified sales that are made in a given calendar year must be generated within the 12 months of that calendar year, the six months before the calendar year began, or the three months after the calendar year has ended. This creates a 21-month window of eligible generation dates from which renewable energy generation can be used toward Green-e Energy Certified sales in any given calendar year.
Outside of Green-e Energy, each program with rules about RECs will have its own range of generation dates that is acceptable. For example, some state Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPSs) require the use of renewables generated in the year they are to be counted toward the RPS, while others have no vintage rules at all and allow a REC to be used toward a year’s requirements regardless of how long ago it was generated. Be sure to consult the rules of the programs you wish to comply with before making sales or purchases for that program, since there is not a universal set of rules for REC expiration.
A: Green-e Energy is a voluntary program. It is set up to protect retail purchasers of renewable energy in the voluntary market, and the most value that Green-e Energy provides is oversight of the sale of renewable energy to retail customers.
Oftentimes a generator will choose not to sell its renewables directly to a retail customer, but instead sell to an entity that will re-sell the renewables in a wholesale transaction. Green-e Energy certification of such a wholesale transaction is possible, but not necessary for Green-e Energy to provide its consumer protection role.
The decision to sign up for Green-e Energy should be based on the types of sales you will make as a generator, the cost of signing up with Green-e Energy (see the fees section), your ability to comply with the National Standard and Code of Conduct, and the needs of your potential customer.
If a generator sells renewables wholesale to a re-seller, that re-seller might sell those renewables in a Green-e Energy Certified transaction at a later date. This is possible so long as the re-seller has a contract with Green-e Energy to make certified transactions. In this case, the re-seller will need documentation from the generator in order for the re-seller to comply with Green-e Energy verification rules. This document is called a Generator Attestation, and can be found at Green-e Energy Documents, along with other verification materials. Generators filling out a Generator Attestation should also read the Green-e Energy National Standard to ensure that they are able to sign the Generator Attestation.
A: You can look for marketers who sell Green-e Energy under our renewable energy product search. Choose “Wholesale” as the Customer Type in the search criteria. Please read the Green-e Energy National Standard to assure that you have a renewable energy source that is eligible. Also see “What is the difference between Green-e Energy Certified and Green-e Energy Eligible?” above.
A: A REC marketer (seller) purchases renewable energy from a generator or a wholesale renewable energy provider, and then “markets” (sells) that energy to retail or wholesale customers who wish to buy a renewable energy product. A marketer takes title to the renewable energy and resells it, but at no time claims the environmental benefits of that renewable energy—only the final buyer can make those claims. A broker connects a buyer and seller of renewable energy, but does not purchase or take title to the renewable energy being traded.
A: A competitive electricity product is renewable electricity sold by an electric service provider in a deregulated state, one that allows for competition among electricity providers. In regulated states, electric utilities are not subject to competition and may offer a certified green pricing program. Green-e Energy has rules specific to electric service providers in these different types of states; see the Green-e Energy National Standard. and the Code of Conduct for details.
A: No. In order for you to be able to count renewable energy towards your Green-e Energy Certified sales, you must be able to show documentation tracing the chain of custody of a renewable MWh back to the generator, as well as show that the renewable MWh meets all applicable criteria in the Green-e Energy National Standard. The chain of custody and characteristics of the renewable MWh are checked during the annual verification process that all sellers participating in Green-e Energy must undergo, regardless of whether you bought a Green-e Energy Certified product to supply your certified sales. Buying certified supply is possible, but not required.