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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.


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

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