Renewable energy certificates help support clean energy

This chart shows Fermilab’s total greenhouse gas emissions, or total energy usage, measured in metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in FY 2008 and 2013, as well as its projected usage and renewable energy certificate purchases. RECs are an important part of Fermilab’s GHG reduction plan. Image taken from Fermilab Site Sustainability Plan (certificate required to read plan)

Fermilab requires enormous amounts of energy to produce scientific results in the field of high-energy physics research. The lab must decrease its carbon footprint and has very specific sustainability goals set forth by DOE, which are driven by the Executive Order 13514.

The laboratory has made efforts to decrease greenhouse gases, or GHGs, related to commuting, business travel, building use and industrial processes. Yet compared to the electricity needed for the machines and facilities that do the science, the energy saved by these efforts is small. When the accelerators are operating, Fermilab uses close to 500,000 megawatt-hours of electricity annually. During the shutdown of the accelerator complex in FY 2013 for maintenance and upgrades, the laboratory used about 200,000 megawatt-hours.

Because of the installation and maintenance costs of renewable energy equipment, low electricity costs in Illinois, the geography of Fermilab and a lack of direct funding for sustainability projects, large-scale wind- and solar-energy projects are not cost-effective on site.

So how does Fermilab meet these sustainability goals, and what happens in the future when the science program requires even more electricity? The laboratory’s biggest GHG reduction contribution is not an actual decrease in electricity use but rather an offset in the form of buying RECs, or renewable energy certificates.

RECs represent the attributes of renewable energy generation and can be purchased as commodities separate from commodity electricity. A renewable-energy generator or company can produce one REC for every megawatt-hour of electricity it generates for the grid. Another party can then purchase the REC and, in so doing, contribute to the renewable-energy market.

Electricity produced by renewable energy has a much lower environmental impact, decreasing the amount of fossil-fuel-produced electricity available on the grid. RECs provide electricity users such as Fermilab, which are unable to directly purchase or generate green power, with a creative way to decrease their carbon footprint. They also stimulate the market by investment in renewable energy production and research and development in new technologies.

In FY 2013, Fermilab paid $19,398 for 29,000 megawatt-hours of RECs to meet sustainability goals. These RECs were generated from new biomass plants that help reduce the environmental impact of the paper industry in Louisiana. Predicted electricity usage increases for FY 2020 will require Fermilab to purchase 213,756 megawatt-hours at a 2013 cost of $142,981, barring the implementation of on-site cost-effective renewable energy.

The above table shows the projected carbon emissions based on future experiments in 2020 and the number of RECs needed to meet DOE’s goals.

Whether we help save energy by carpooling to work or getting in on the renewable-energy market, every little bit counts toward a greener, cleaner world.

Katie Kosirog