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Houston expert: Why higher REC prices are good for the future of renewables

P.J. Popovic, CEO of Houston-based Rhythm, explains Renewable Energy Certificates work and their impact on Texas. Photo courtesy of Rhythm

We all know what renewable energy is — wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, hydropower — but how do you purchase it? It's invisible. Not to mention when energy from any source enters the electricity grid, there's no way to track all those electrons.

Renewable Energy Certificates have made it possible

Renewable Energy Certificates, or RECs, allow us to track your clean energy. Each individual REC represents one megawatt-hour of clean energy generated. And while a REC isn't technically electricity, it represents the clean energy going into the electricity grid—meaning homes and businesses claim their commitment to renewable energy if their electricity is supported by RECs.

It's also important to understand what a renewable energy certificate is not: an offset. An offset represents a metric ton of emissions avoided and a REC represents 1 MWh of clean energy generated. While each have similar goals, they are not quite the same thing.

Not all RECs are created equally

The market for RECs is fluid. Due to the growth of the renewable energy market, RECs have been oversupplied for years. This has created low prices and little-to-no financial advantage for the facilities that generate clean electricity (e.g., wind facilities, solar farms, hydro plants).

In Texas, the retail electricity market is inundated with renewable electricity claims said to be supported by RECs. The energy plan you sign up for might come from solar, wind, biomass, or even trash incineration, but the renewable energy facilities likely are coming from outside Texas, located in places like California, Canada, or elsewhere. While there's no wrong way to switch to renewable energy, supporting renewable energy sources inside Texas helps Texans move closer to being a more sustainable state.

Choosing Texas renewable energy plans and your actions do have a true, real-world impact more than ever before

Some critics have argued that REC-supported renewable energy plans don't meet the highest standard of sustainability arguing RECs are not foundational to the existence of renewable energy assets. In other words, they argue that RECs don't provide a material revenue source for renewable projects because they don't incentivize new developments of renewable facilities to be built.

When RECs were trading for less than a dollar, this was a valid argument. But that was then, and this is now.

In the last year alone, voluntary renewable energy certificate prices have skyrocketed and are now between $7 and $10 per MWh. This means RECs can now contribute up to 30 percent of a renewable facility's revenue. Naturally, this encourages more and more clean-energy facilities and clean-energy jobs to be created. A win-win.

What about Power Purchase Agreements?

A Power Purchase Agreement, or PPA, is a tad different than a REC. In a PPA, the developer of a renewable project (solar arrays at a solar farm, or turbines at a wind farm) can sell the actual energy it produces over a 10-to-20-year contract.

While the sale of this renewable energy still contributes to a larger portion of project revenues, the revenue mix has clearly shifted, and RECs cannot be considered an immaterial incentive anymore. Sure, PPAs are a stronger market signal for renewable project development, but only a couple of hundred organizations globally utilize PPAs. This makes them very challenging for businesses to access.

Through PPAs, various risks, credit needs, and long-term commitments create challenges for many organizations to meet their sustainability goals. So, while RECs do not provide as material of a market signal as PPAs, with the recent changes in market prices, RECs can now be considered a meaningful, profitable market signal for renewable projects.

Making the future of renewable energy in Texas even brighter.

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P.J. Popovic is the CEO of Houston-based Rhythm.

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Building Houston

 
 

Activate is planting its roots in Houston with a plan to have its first set of fellows next year. Photo via Getty Images

An organization that directs support to scientists developing impactful technology has decided on Houston for its fifth program.

Activate was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products. The nonprofit expanded its programs to Boston and New York before launching a virtual fellowship program — Activate Anywhere, which is for scientists 50 or more miles outside one of the three hubs.

"Our mission is to empower scientists to reinvent the world by bringing their research to market," Aimee Rose, executive managing director of Activate, tells InnovationMap. "There's so much technical talent that we educate in this country every year and so many amazing inventions that happen, that combining the two, which is the sort of inventor/entrepreneur, and giving them the support mechanisms they need to get on their feet and be successful, has the potential to unlock an incredible amount of value for the country, for the environment, and to address other social problems."

This year, Activate is planting seeds in Houston to grow a presence locally and have its first set of fellows in 2024. While Activate is industry agnostic, Rose says a big draw from Houston is the ability to impact the future of energy.

"We're super excited about Houston as an emerging ecosystem for the clean energy transition as being the energy capital of the world, as well as all the other emerging players there are across the landscape in Houston," Rose says. "I think we can move the needle in Houston because of our national footprint."

The first order of business, Rose says, is hiring a managing director for Activate Houston. The job, which is posted online, is suited for an individual who has already developed a hardtech business and has experience and connections within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"We want to customize the program so that it makes the most sense for the community," Rose says about the position. "So, somebody that has the relationships and the knowledge of the ecosystem to be able to do that and somebody that's kind of a mentor at heart."

The program is for early-stage founders — who have raised less than $2 million in funding — working on high-impact technology. Rose explains that Activate has seen a number of microelectronics and new materials companies go through the program, and, while medical innovation is impactful, Activate doesn't focus on pharmaceutical or therapeutic industries since there are existing pathways for those products.

Ultimately, Activate is seeking innovators whose technologies fall through the cracks of existing innovation infrastructure.

"Not every business fits into the venture capital model in terms of what investors would expect to be eventual outcomes, but these these types of businesses can still have significant impact and make the world a better place," Rose says, explaining how Activate is different from an incubator or accelerator. "As opposed as compared to a traditional incubator, this is a very high touch program. You get a living stipend so you can take a big business technical risk without a personal risk. We give you a lot of hands on support and mentoring."

Each of the programs selects 10 fellows that join the program for two years. The fellows receive a living stipend, connections from Activate's robust network of mentors, and access to a curriculum specific to the program.

Since its inception, Activate has supported 104 companies and around 146 entrepreneurs associated with those companies. With the addition of Houston, Activate will be able to back 50 individuals a year.

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