Avoiding Greenwashing: Carbon Neutral
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by Heather Philipp on 03/16/2010
What is the difference between buying renewable energy to offset power use and being "wind powered"? We take a closer look here...
"100% Wind-Powered" "We use 100% wind power." "We use renewable energy." These
are all statements that are used to describe a few different ways that people
support and/or use renewable energy, but can sometimes be misleading - often
innocently. When messaging mistakes are made, it can sometimes lead to accusations of greenwashing.
We've worked with thousands of businesses, individuals, families, and green building projects in the U.S. and internationally to measure and reduce the impact of their electricity use, travel, and other emissions-heavy activities. Over the years, we've taken an especially active role in helping our business clients communicate, even showcase, their support of renewable energy. In the process, we've helped define how the renewable energy industry talks about renewable energy credits (RECs) and corporate sustainability initiatives.
Most businesses support renewable energy development, including the growth of wind farms in the U.S. and internationally, by measuring their electricity use, then purchasing renewable energy credits (RECs) in the same amount. This is commonly referred to as offsetting because it essentially offsets or balances the environmental impact of the electricity the company uses. The RECs guarantee that the energy pulled off/used by the company is replaced on the grid by renewable sources. These RECs are basically an accountability/tracking mechanism that, if third-party certified (like ours are by Green-e Energy®), guarantee energy is added to the grid on the purchaser’s behalf from new wind power or other renewable energy facilities. Third-party certification also helps ensure that the environmental benefits of that energy are not double-counted, meaning only one organization can claim the environmental benefits. For more, read our overview of How Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) Work.
To break it down; when speaking about a renewable energy credit (REC) purchase:
We support wind power.
We help renewable energy grow.
We are supporting the growth of renewable energy.
We offset 100% of our electricity with wind power.
We are wind-powered.
Our electricity is sourced only from renewable energy/wind power.
We use 100% wind power.
Let me elaborate on the issues inherent in the statements to avoid. Unless you have on-site solar installations, wind turbines, or other renewable energy sources providing your electricity, you are not using 100% renewable energy (and even if you do have it installed, it may only be supplying a portion of your electricity needs, of course).
While the national power grid mix that most homes and businesses get their electricity from does include a very small amount of electricity from renewable sources (about 3% on average in the U.S.), this obviously cannot be grounds for a wind-powered claim.
Saying you are wind-powered or use energy sourced from renewables is incorrect when your support for renewables is through your purchase of RECs and not through purchasing and utilizing electricty directly from a renewable source (solar panels on your roof, etc.). This is because the statement gives the impression that the electrons that power your lights and so on came directly to you from only renewable sources when in actuality, for most of us, that energy comes from a power mix delivered to us by our utility and fed primarily by burning fossil fuels.
When we first started helping people reduce their environmental impact with wind power back in 2001, "100% wind-powered" was the norm, and many of our clients and residential customers used this language to talk about their REC purchases. At the time, this was an industry standard perpetuated without much challenge because little was popularly understood about how RECs worked. All things considered, using this over-simplified language then was appropriate for the audience. But today's sophisticated, environmentally-versed, concerned citizen demands and can more readily digest the subtleties of renewable energy messaging. We are now able and required to be more specific; to be as accurate as possible.
We strongly encourage our clients and the industry to be specific and
transparent about renewable energy credit (REC) purchases, and to avoid
overstatements and oversimplifications. In doing so, we can also help wind
power supporters better stand behind the power and value of the REC market. At
the same time, we hope that concerned consumers and organizations will help coach businesses towards the most accurate way to describe their sustainability efforts, keeping in mind that messaging mistakes aren't always and (in the case of what I've seen with our clients) are rarely made with intent to decieve. In fact, I've seen many of our clients work very hard to be transparent and accurate in their statements and I congratulate them not only on their sustainability efforts but on their commitment to integrity in their communications.
I'll be talking more about messaging concerns, how to avoid greenwashing, and why to be cautious about claiming carbon neutrality in upcoming posts. If you are a business that supports renewable energy by buying RECs, or are thinking about becoming one, and would like to learn more about communicating those commitments well, we've got a helpful free webinar led by Megan Brown, our head of client relations called Communicating Sustainability.
Heather Philipp is Director of Media & Communications for Renewable Choice Energy