Guest Commentary: Are We Up to the Challenge of Green Energy?

March 28, 2013 10:58 AM2 comments

Many of us are concerned about our increasingly erratic climate and wonder how future generations will cope. Is there anything we can do as a community in Falls Church about this? This article provides one option.

The largest source of climate-affecting greenhouse gas emissions comes from energy made from burning fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and oil. Renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, avoid most greenhouse gas emissions. However, transitioning to renewable energy is challenging – especially for small jurisdictions like the City of Falls Church.

A program developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers us a voluntary and low-cost way to help support companies that produce renewable energy, thereby aiding efforts to reduce use of fossil fuels. To add some fun, the EPA’s program, called the Green Power Community Challenge, sets targets directly related to the energy we use. Reach the targets and you get the right to call yourself an EPA Green Power Community. At present, 45 communities in the U.S. have met the challenge (none in Virginia!).

Understanding the Green Power Community Challenge targets requires some background explanation. Companies producing renewable energy (such as from a wind farm) are allowed to issue proof of production certificates, called Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), for the renewable electricity they produce. These RECs have value (and can be bought and sold) because renewable energy avoids the health and climate damage caused by fossil-based energy. When you buy RECs you get the right to claim the environmental benefits of the renewable energy, and you also provide funds to help develop more renewable energy.

The RECs sold by producers of renewable energy come in amounts too large for most consumers to purchase directly. As a result, brokers have emerged who package RECs in consumer-friendly quantities. These brokers also work with utility companies to package REC purchases in amounts that match a consumer’s home energy use, and to allow consumers to pay for the RECs with small additions to their monthly utility bill (starting at $2 per month). Like stock or real estate brokers, REC brokers include fees for their services in the price of their RECs. The City of Falls Church has partnered with one of these brokers – a company called 3 Degrees – both as a source of RECs and to help us manage our efforts to reach the EPA Green Power Community Challenge target.

Now back to those targets. The EPA sets them based on the size of a community, and gives us a year to achieve it. For our city, the target is the purchase of renewable energy equivalent to 3% of our annual electricity usage (that’s a little over 4,000 Megawatt-hours). The EPA is flexible as to where we get renewable energy, and allows us to count RECs purchased through 3 Degrees or any other recognized source (see a list of options on the City’s web site at www.fallschurchva.gov/GreenPower). It is also possible to include RECs issued to our residents and businesses who install solar photovoltaic systems. How about RECs purchased by businesses located in our City? By all means!

So how are we doing as a city? We began last September, when our City Council voted to accept the EPA Green Power Community Challenge (and also authorized purchase of enough RECs for our City government to qualify to become an EPA Green Power Partner). As of the moment, the City is about half way to meeting the target and we’re making steady progress. But we need more of our households and businesses to sign up to purchase RECs over the next five months. See the web site above for more information on how to participate and help The Little City become the first community in Virginia to become a Green Power Community.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, this program is just one way we can do our part to address greenhouse gas emissions. There are many others. Getting an energy audit of our homes is a good way to get ideas on how to reduce energy consumption. Purchasing EnergyStar rated appliances is another. Shopping and dining at our local businesses helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with travel by car. Insisting on energy efficient guidelines like LEED for new municipal and privately owned commercial buildings demonstrates our community’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Becoming a Green Power Community really is all about strengthening our community.


Peter Adriance serves on the City of Falls Church’s Environmental Services Council. He and his wife match 100% of their household energy with RECs purchased through Dominion Virginia Power’s Green Power Program.

  • FallsChurchCitizen

    Speaking of budget priorities as Falls Church homeowners already face a large real estate tax increase…

  • Helen Black

    This is what the council spends money on, a piece of paper? Once in the grid, renewable energy is impossible to separate from conventionally generated energy. This makes purchasing of a REC equal to purchasing a claim, that the REC owner consumed energy from the renewable portion of the whole energy in the grid. Therefore REC purchase does not affect how much renewable energy was actually generated – only how it was distributed. Basically, our city is subsidizing the market for renewable energy. I don’t want to be the first community in Virginia to become a Green Power Community for the joke will be on us. All of the city’s money isn’t even going to the actual creation of the renewable energy source. Looking at a program in Oregon, only 67 percent of investment purchased RECs; the remaining 33 percent was spent on staff and publicity. On average, 19 percent of green programs’ revenues go to marketing, but at small utilities that percentage is far greater.

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