Just before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Big Sky Resort purchased RECs to retroactively compensate for energy used to operate its 38 ski lifts. PHOTO COURTESY JON RESNICK

RECs

What 100% renewable electric energy actually means

On Feb. 2, Boyne Resorts announced a purchase commitment with CMS Enterprises which resulted in 100% renewable electric energy at all Boyne resorts and facilities as of the first of the new year. This was possible in part by the purchase of renewable energy credits, or RECs.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a REC is generated when one mega-watt hour (MWh) of power is created and delivered to the electrical grid from a renewable source.

One MWh of renewable power equals one REC, essentially.

Two revenue streams are created from this process—a kilo-watt hour of power (KWh), how electricity is sold, and property rights over a unit of ‘greenness,’ as an article from Vox by David Roberts put it.

RECs were developed as states created Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), which designated state-specific guidelines and criteria for renewable energy with goals including diversified energy sources and domestic energy production. In 2005, Montana’s RPS made a goal of reaching 15% renewable energy generation by 2015.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), roughly half the growth of renewable energy generation projects can be attributed to RPSs since the early 2000s. Since many utilities subject to mandates in RPSs must obtain RECs, RECs can be included in this metric. Through an RPS, RECs validate renewable energy generation and use claims in the renewable energy market.

If that is clear enough, the electrical grid itself makes things a little more complicated.

Energy cannot be tracked once it enters the grid. Different sources blend together, and it is impossible to draw only clean energy.

Boyne’s purchase of RECs to account for its energy usage is retroactive. The company will track, calculate and pay for clean energy, RECs, based on energy used over a month’s time. Remembering the grid, there is no way to ensure that the energy powering all the lights, for example, at Big Sky Resort is clean energy.

The grid is a melting pot. Once electricity goes in, the origin source is unidentifiable. Big Sky Resort uses the same energy source, NorthWestern Energy, as everyone else in the Town Center or Meadow Village.

In a way, the REC purchase by Boyne is a signal of support for clean energy and serves to help finance clean energy projects. The cost to purchase a REC is low, and this is certainly not a deterrence for purchasing. In 2012/2013, the price for a REC in Montana was $0.97.

Boyne’s ability to say that it is now powered by 100% clean electricity means that it purchased and took RECs out of circulation equal to its calculated power consumption. That purchase is not the same thing as an offset.

An offset represents a metric ton of emissions avoided or reduced, while RECs show attributes of a MWh or renewable energy generation, according to the EPA. The two, it says, are fundamentally different. RECs represent property rights to environmental, social and other non-power attributes of renewable energy generation, but are not reducing any emissions currently in the atmosphere or environment.

RECs are not an offset in the way we want to think of an offset—doing one thing eliminates or prohibits another.

Instead, after the purchase, the same amount of renewable energy is put back into the grid for later use. Stacie Mesuda, Big Sky Resort public relations manager described it as a way of working around the fact that there is no way to trace power in the grid.

“It’s great for showing demand for better electricity solutions and supporting clean energy projects. It really does benefit the whole community because it’s going into the mixed grid, so when we show support for these kinds of projects, it’s not just us that benefits from it,” Mesuda said.

The option to offset one’s trip to Big Sky Resort is more of a direct offset. Collaborating with Tradewater, a company that collects and destroys refrigerants, the money people spend directly supports Tradewater’s purpose. Refrigerants used in commercial refrigeration and air conditioning contribute to stratosphere ozone depletion.

“When a guest is offsetting their trips through that program, they’re basically paying for the cost of Tradewater to go out and perform that destruction and collection of these refrigerants,” Mesuda said.

Back to the broader point, RECs are almost more of a symbol and part of a greater goal. “(RECs are) not the end game here,” Mesuda said. The objective is to continually reduce energy consumption and be more efficient as an operation, she said.

In addition to the trip offsetting calculator, Big Sky Resort announced on March 3, 2020 that all ski lift operations will be powered by 100% renewable electricity. By now, hopefully you understand a little more about what that means.

“Our 2025 Vision has us replacing more consumptive lifts with the most efficient available, like Ramcharger 8 and the new Swift Current 6, but that takes time,” Troy Nedved, general manager at Big Sky Resort, said. “As we navigate both on-site reductions in energy use and cleaner sources, buying RECs is the best practice strategy in the near term.”

Boyne has the ability to spend on RECs in the short-term, and taking this step signals the company’s support of clean energy projects. Boyne has the potential to serve as a leader—creating more awareness and more demand for renewable energy.

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