The carbon-neutral bandwagon |

The carbon-neutral bandwagon

Matt TerrellVail CO, Colorado
Published: AP photo

VAIL – Buying wind credits gives peace of mind to us environmental sinners in Vail, but are they worth much else?There’s been some serious back-patting going on ever since Vail Resorts and the town of Vail decided to offset 100 percent of their electricity use with clean, emission-free power produced by wind farmers. It’s the first thing you see on the Vail Resorts Web site and has made Vail a leader in this rapidly growing trend of “neutralizing” environmental impacts by investing in renewable energy.Some people, though, question the world-saving value of purchasing wind offsets, fearing they’re being used in lieu of actually decreasing energy use, or fearing the offsets themselves are shady buys. They are certainly in vogue in the Fortune 500 world, but how much do they help the environment beyond clearing your conscience?Clean electricityAside from the glowing windmills by the golf course, there aren’t actual wind turbines on the mountain.Both Vail Resorts and the town buy renewable-energy certificates, also known as RECs, through the Boulder-based broker Renewable Choice Energy. These certificates ensure that when Vail uses electricity, it’s replaced in the “grid” with an equal amount of clean energy produced by wind farmers as opposed to burning coal. This reduces the amount of carbon emissions that contribute to global warming, and the more companies that do this, the cleaner the mix of electricity is.Buying massive chunks of renewable energy has become common practice among corporations and cities wanting to hop on the carbon-neutrality bandwagon. The market for RECs has grown from almost nothing to a multimillion-dollar industry in the past few years, and that should be seen as a good thing, said Lori Bird, an analyst with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.”This is a way for companies to green up their energy use. You’re putting clean, green power back in the grid and raising awareness,” she said. CredibilityThe offset industry is booming, and even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognizes offsets as a legitimate way to clean up energy use. But the industry is still in its infancy, and universal standards of what constitutes a legitimate offset are weak and haven’t been widely recognized.

Until that happens, it’s hard to know what you’re getting, and credibility is questionable, said Randy Udall, director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, an Aspen-based nonprofit that promotes renewable energy.For instance, how do you know those windmills you’re investing in aren’t already producing electricity for someone else? How do you know new windmills are being created as claimed?There are different ways of legitimizing wind credits – Vail’s RECs, for instance, are certified by a group called Green-e, which assures that the energy isn’t double counted and that electricity is produced by new projects created since 1997.”They assure the customer receives the promised benefits, so I hope it takes some mystery out of the thing,” said Bill Carlson, the town’s environmental officer.Udall is skeptical of Green-e’s standards, though, saying that he doubts that investments in farms that have been around for as long as 10 years, which is allowed in Green-e’s standards, will actually create new wind projects.”They have set a loose standard. Simply buying RECs from old farms and claiming that it’s somehow promoting renewable energy seems disingenuous to me,” Udall said. “I personally hope they revisit the question of REC quality. If it’s not doing anything significant, I’d much rather see them spend it internally on their own housekeeping.”The REC industry should be scrutinized because, after all, Vail Resorts wants a good product, said Rob Katz, chief executive officer of Vail Resorts. Katz admitted that it’s not the most direct way of going green, but at this point in a growing industry, it’s the only way Vail can be associated with green energy and pay its share, he said.”You can’t expect every company in the country to build their own wind turbine and solar grid,” Katz said. “You need to bring them together, have them fund the development and create the demand for alternative energy and green power plants.” IndulgencesA growing number of critics don’t give much credit to the basic idea of buying carbon offsets or RECs. They say this practice is misleading and promotes complacency, teaching people to buy off their problems instead of taking the arduous steps of significantly reducing their own carbon emissions.A February report from the Transnational Institute, a nonpartisan group of activists and researchers, likens the practice to the “indulgences” bought by wealthy Catholics in the Middle Ages. This practice started when clergymen, realizing they’d done enough good deeds in their life to have a “surplus,” began selling their excess good deeds to sinners with money. This was done in place of true repentance.”It presents itself as a way that people can effectively deal with climate change while largely maintaining their levels of energy consumption,” the report said.

Bird, who said there is good purpose to buying wind credits, warned against believing it’s a solution.”Becoming more energy efficient is really the way to go,” Bird said. “Reducing demand should be the first step, and after you make a lot of efficiency improvements, you ask, ‘What else can you do?’ RECs are one way of doing something.”The question then becomes whether Vail is doing what it can before buying wind power.”We are a resort, and we are going to use more energy per capita than a normal community,” Carlson said. “We’re not mainstream America, and in many cases, we can’t help that. But we can do things to reduce our use on site.”He points to Vail’s plans for installing high-efficiency water boilers, replacing light bulbs with florescents, installing motion sensors for lighting and creating solar-energy systems for employee housing and even a solar array above the ski museum that powers an informational kiosk.Vail Resorts does several things to help the environment – a partnership with the National Forest Foundation, extensive recycling, compost projects, making sure snowcats don’t idle, heat controls, light-dimming switches – several things that just make sense, Katz said.He also pointed to the Ever Vail project, a green rebuilding of West Lionshead that Katz said will become the largest resort in America certified by Leaders in Energy and Environmental Design.”There will be constructive criticism of the industry, but let’s not lose sight of the ultimate goal everyone has – finding a way to do something about alternative energy when the answer is not simply handed in front of you,” Katz said. ==========================The savingsThe town of Vail will replace about 20 million kilowatt hours of electricity over three years with electricity produced by wind power. This is expected to prevent more than 28 million pounds of carbon dioxide from pumping into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming, said Bill Carlson, environmental health officer for the town.Vail Resorts is buying 152,000 megawatt hours of electricity a year, equivalent to eliminating 211 million pounds of CO2 emissions and taking 18,000 cars off the road, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.==============================

What does that mean?• Carbon offsetsA carbon offset essentially zeros out (offsets) the CO2 emissions you use either by reducing emissions through renewable energy or by increasing carbon-dioxide absorption. Carbon offsets are purchased by individuals, businesses and governments, and the most popular ways to offset emissions are reforestation, renewable energy and conservation projects.• Renewable energyRenewable energy (also referred to as clean energy or green energy) is defined as “energy derived from resources that are regenerative or for all practical purposes cannot be depleted.” Renewable energy sources contribute approximately 25 percent of human energy use worldwide. The use of wind, water and solar power are widespread in developed and developing countries, but the mass production of electricity using renewable energy sources has become more commonplace only recently, reflecting the major threats of climate change due to pollution, exhaustion of fossil fuels and the environmental, social and political risks of fossil fuels and nuclear power.• Renewable-energy certificatesRenewable-energy certificates (RECs) are also know as green tags or tradable renewable certificates (TRCs). When a wind farm, or any other renewable power source, generates an amount of electricity, it also earns a certificate that says the electricity is “green.” The certificate is a way for consumers to purchase any amount of “green power” to replenish the grid for all or a percentage of the power they use from the grid.Source: Renewable Choice Energy=======================================Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or

Support Local Journalism