In the ancient past of corporate sustainability initiatives—like, say, five whole years ago—the concept of “additionality” gained traction and fundamentally disrupted the long-standing practice of companies buying unbundled renewable energy certificates (RECs) as the leading way to demonstrate their commitment to clean energy. Additionality came along and set a new bar: corporations could sign power purchase agreements (PPAs), whether direct/physical or virtual, that enabled new large-scale wind and solar energy to get built and added to the U.S. power grid.
It has undoubtedly been an overwhelming force for good. Between 2015 and August 2019, corporations signed contracts for a staggering 17.7 GW of new renewable energy, according to the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance Deal Tracker. And the investments continue. Just last month, telecom major T-Mobile announced a quintet of contracts for solar and wind projects in three U.S. states: Virginia, Illinois, and Texas. Meanwhile, also last month tech giant Google announced perhaps the largest corporate renewable investment ever: $2 billion invested in 1,600 MW of wind and solar projects spread across 18 projects in the U.S., South America, and Europe.
All of which begs the question: Is new “steel in the ground” the end game ? Or do some investments mean more than others?
A new wave of innovation reaches corporate renewables purchasing
RECs bundled with PPAs that pass additionality muster remain the standard, especially for the largest buyers that have the demand, credit worthiness, and resources to source such contracts. But with the climate crisis only deepening, we’re now seeing a new wave of innovation to make renewables drive even more impact. As with the decommoditization of electricity, which looked beyond treating all raw kilowatt-hours the same and started to differentially care about the source of those electrons (e.g., coal, natural gas, wind, solar), we’re now arguably seeing a decommoditization of the PPA.
In this unfolding new era of corporate renewables procurement 2.0, we’re starting to see some buyers look beyond the raw PPA. There’s an increasing understanding that all renewable PPAs are not created the same. And I’m not merely talking about common contractual details: price, term length, wind vs. solar. More importantly, I’m talking about location. Where new renewable energy projects get built matters, not in terms of proximity to a corporate buyer’s facilities, but rather in terms of the positive impact a new wind or solar farm will have on grid emissions. And those impacts can be significant: Holding all else equal (e.g., project budget, MW build side, interconnection possibilities), the practice of emissionality, according to WattTime research, can achieve up to a 380% increase in avoided GHG emissions.
“Here at WattTime, we’ve started calling this concept ‘emissionality,’” says co-founder and executive director Gavin McCormick. “Like additionality, it’s a way for renewable energy buyers to ensure their purchases are really driving impact. But it’s a more quantitative way of thinking about impact: by directly comparing the real-world drop in fossil fuel emissions that different renewable energy projects cause.”
The idea is straightforward: Although renewable energy itself is by definition always emissions-free, where such projects get built greatly influences their true net impact on overall grid emissions. For example, yet another wind farm in a region of the country already saturated with—and perhaps even curtailing surplus—wind energy isn’t going to reduce total electricity sector emissions as much as a solar farm built in a region of the country where its output will displace coal-fired electricity.
Emissionality was the driving force behind Boston University’s wind power purchase announcement in September 2018. The university looked beyond the New England region and ultimately signed a contract for a project in South Dakota. That’s because BU’s 2017 Climate Action Plan targeted carbon neutrality by 2040, which included a focus on buying wind and solar energy to offset its electricity use and, crucially, seeking out projects that would reduce emissions as much as possible. In other words, BU didn’t just want renewable energy; it wanted renewable energy that could deliver the greatest emissionality benefits, too.
Clearloop is putting the spotlight on emissionality
Until now, examples like BU’s have accounted for only a minority of the corporate renewable PPA market. But there are signs that emissionality is gaining momentum. For one, new entrant Tennessee-based startup Clearloop—which is already getting a fair amount of buzz—is the first to make it core to their offering. Rather than offer renewable PPAs against a corporation’s overall electricity consumption, Clearloop is offering renewables-based emissions offsets at the product level.
As a hypothetical, imagine that a shoe company wants to offset the carbon emissions associated with producing a particular line of sneaker. Once the company has calculated that emissions number, it can go to Clearloop to source an equivalent amount of avoided emissions, rooted in new renewable energy projects built around the country.
It’s an intriguing twist on corporate renewables procurement. Corporations are typically accustomed to buying renewable energy on a MWh basis. Through Clearloop, they’re instead essentially buying renewables on an avoided emissions basis. This naturally lends itself to putting emissionality into practice. In order for Clearloop to offer its customers the biggest bang for their buck, it will naturally seek to build new renewable energy projects in those regions of the country where they can achieve the biggest avoided emissions.
“The grid is not equally dirty across the country, so we saw opportunities to build renewable energy in places where it can have the best impact,” says Clearloop co-founder Laura Zapata. “Rather than tying carbon offsets to something less tangible and less connected to everyday actions, like trees planted, we’re basically leveraging companies’ desire to invest in carbon reductions and connecting it more directly to tangible renewable energy projects.”Accounting for emissionality of a project still has a way to go before it becomes a central factor in corporate renewable investment decision-making. But it clearly is making inroads. There’s growing recognition that better siting of new wind and solar projects can achieve deeper reductions in grid emissions, rather than adding yet more renewables to those regions that already have it in spades.