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The Next Generation of Carbon-free Energy Procurement

Claudia Baldwin

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In the race to decarbonize our companies, we’re rewriting the road signs as we drive. When buying renewable energy, different approaches call for different avenues of action, but in 2022, a renewed focus on more precise and systemic decarbonization has begun. We’ve outgrown the system that got us here, and carbon-free energy procurement is emerging as the next platform for corporate leadership.

In the context of procurement, carbon-free energy describes any energy bought that was produced by a resource that generates no carbon emissions.

Carbon-free energy is where we know we need to be, but first the industry has to make its way through the scrum to define the best path forward. Fundamental questions remain, all the way down to choosing the metrics to measure progress — whether that’s expressed in emissions reductions or the addition of carbon-free megawatt-hours of electricity. Whatever the outcomes, those performance indicators will be central to defining the next generation of energy procurement.

24/7 carbon-free energy

You can think about 24/7 carbon-free energy as a sharper focus on improving the grid’s generation and transmission capacity to get clean electrons through the grid to the buyer any time they need it.

Google is pioneering this approach. “It’s best not to think of 24/7 energy as a procurement strategy but an approach to transforming the system and enabling a decarbonized grid for everyone,” said Sarah Penndorf, standards and advocacy lead for Google, during a session at VERGE 22 last month.

Those pursuing 24/7-driven procurement strategies say their own emissions aren’t the end goal — they’re seeking decarbonization of the entire grid. The fact is that while buying renewable energy through corporate power purchase agreements or other mechanisms might get companies’ carbon accounting to zero emissions or help them reach annual energy matching goals, that practice doesn’t necessarily lead to actually decarbonizing the company or the grid.

In contrast, by focusing on the 24/7 goal, corporate energy buyers can funnel direct investment toward the numerous technologies that are left in the gap between wind and solar, catalyzing wider spread adoption of these new innovations for everyone. This is because the 24/7 approach includes technologies that don’t qualify for renewable energy credits (RECs) such as nuclear and hydropower as well as battery storage. Under a 24/7 approach, companies would first focus on decarbonizing the energy infrastructure nearest to them, then wherever the rest of their energy comes from — and also pressure their utilities, regulators and policymakers about the lack of 24/7 options.

Google has partnered with C40 Cities, a global network of mayors taking urgent action to confront the climate crisis, to bring city governments into the conversation, starting with London, Copenhagen and Paris. The collaboration will provide insights and resources to help these cities take advantage of their enormous buying power and leverage in revamping their energy infrastructure.

The Clean Energy Buyers Association (CEBA) is an organization that understands the monumental task at hand, and after speaking with Bryn Baker, a senior director of marketing and policy innovation for CEBA and moderator of VERGE’s panel, the challenges were clear: 24/7 is tricky, visionary, highly impactful and can be expensive, she told me. Larger corporations and institutional buyers are more suited to tackling their energy grid head on, but for small and midsize companies with smaller budgets and teams, it can be overwhelming to try to decarbonize your energy consumption, Baker said.

Counting emissions that were never released

Currently, smaller businesses’ primary way to engage in carbon-free energy is through procuring energy attribute certificates (EACs). Companies buy an EAC, representing one MWh of renewable energy. Once it’s used, the credit is retired and can be reported in a company’s Scope 2 or 3 emissions as carbon savings. This approach offers the lowest cost per ton for companies to reduce emissions and provides an avenue for everyone, no matter their buying power, to engage in carbon reductions.

The panel discussed how despite skepticism about the real impact of RECs — the main EAC you can buy in the United States — they can provide an on-ramp to learning about carbon-free energy and have been instrumental for corporate power purchase agreements (PPAs). Since it’s impossible to track a single electron through the power system, we’ve relied on RECs as means to represent them.

For more impactful procurement, companies must get credit for avoided emissions — carbon that never had to be released. For example, if a company buys energy from a renewable energy plant on a grid where the rest of the energy comes from coal, it is making sure carbon-free electricity is used instead of more coal power.

For example, according to WattTime, a nonprofit automating emissions reductions and renewable energy siting, supporting a solar project in West Virginia would avoid three times the emissions as the same-sized project in California — simply because of the makeup of the grid.

These findings led WattTime to coin the term “emissionality,” a portmanteau of “emissions” and “additionality.” That phrase suggests buyers will need to think differently and focus on the creation of more robust EACs that better measure the impact of buying PPAs in the dirtiest grids.

VERGE 22 panelist Dennis Carlberg, associate vice president for university sustainability at Boston University, highlighted how the university’s demand of 205,000 megawatt hours a year — compared to Google’s more than 9 million — meant Boston University “had a different need and wasn’t convinced the 24/7 metric would work for their university.” He said that the university set a goal “to maximize the university’s investment to achieve the most amount of carbon reductions possible without raising tuition, as quickly as it could.”

After months of analysis with internal and external stakeholders, Boston University concluded the largest impact it could achieve was matching 100 percent of its energy for the next 15 years, through a PPA not from the nearby grid in New England but from a wind farm soon to be built in South Dakota.

Organizations such as Boston University are left to create their own approaches to measuring impact, leading to inconsistencies across procurement methodologies. The panel illustrated how there’s much more that must be agreed upon before creating a standardized way to measure avoided emissions, starting with defining what makes a dirty grid and what counts as “cleaning it up.”

Standardizing the calculations would unlock a critical new level of detail and validity for RECs and the ability for companies to truly measure their carbon impact, the panelists suggested. Carbon emissions counters such as WattTime and EnergyTag, a nonprofit building a market for hourly energy certificates, are both developing formulas for the best approximation. To be able to quantify either methodology, whether that be emissionality or 24/7, we need better data.

Image via Shutterstock/Sunshine Studio

The data needed to take the next step

The current generation of carbon-free energy buyers lacks the data to truly drive impact. Currently, companies commonly receive their emissions on an annual basis, despite the carbon intensity of the grid changing by the second.

On top of that, grid operators also have limited visibility into the exploding amounts of distributed energy resources coming onto the grid. This adds more producers and local options, which further complicates the ability to track emissions.

The granularity can go further to include hourly timestamps, real-time carbon intensities and the locations where the electricity is produced. These “allow us to have an attribution system that recognizes new benefits. It starts with the timestamp, but there might be environmental justice benefits or supplying energy to disadvantaged communities or tribal lands,” explained Zach Livingston of Cleartrace, an organization creating new methods for how decarbonization information is collected and transacted.

Renewable procurement company Level10 Energy and nonprofit Nature Conservancy are pursuing something similar, releasing a white paper on quantifying a community approach to procurement. Salesforce is developing a procurement matrix that could allow companies to choose to procure energy depending on their land usage or impacts on wildlife.

The real impact is in finding the right combination of 24/7 energy and emissionality that makes sense for each individual company. Like all avenues for action in climate, we need both. CEBA’s Baker closed the session by encouraging attendees to ask how their organization can drive a larger impact — by embracing the full suite of procurement options for driving true grid decarbonization and pursuing other kinds of leadership, including policy, regulatory or utility engagement. No matter which nexus we find ourselves in, carbon-free energy procurement is the clear next step for companies to take in tackling the climate crisis.

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Mixed Momentum on Methane Mitigation

Claudia Baldwin

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One big topic of conversation at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, was the launch of a Global Methane Pledge coordinated by the U.S. and European Union and embraced by more than 100 countries. That number has since swelled to around 130. China — the world’s largest methane emitter — isn’t on the list, although it has been sending hints that a preliminary plan is in place.

So far, the COP26 methane moment has failed to turn into a movement with strong momentum, even though the pledge wasn’t all that ambitious to begin with, calling for cuts of 30 percent by 2030. For all the rhetoric 12 months ago and last week at COP27, there are still very few actual reduction policies in place.

We can credit corporate lobbying by the oil and gas, and agricultural sectors at least partially for the slow action on strict policies, according to a new InfluenceMap website launched to track the issue. “Many of the companies involved in this lobbying effort are the same companies that have made public comments about the need to reduce methane emissions,” said Vivek Parkeh, senior analyst with InfluenceMap, in a press release about the research.

The focus on methane is important because it’s a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide — it traps heat at 80 times the rate of CO2 during its first two decades in the atmosphere. According to an analysis by the International Energy Agency, methane is responsible for about 30 percent of global temperature rises since pre-industrial times.

The two largest sources are oil and natural gas production (where it is tied to the burning of natural gas related to oil extraction and pipeline leaks) and agriculture (mostly from raising livestock). Agriculture is actually the larger of the two, accounting for about 25 percent of all methane emissions, according to the IEA. Decomposing organic waste related to landfills comes in third, accounting for approximately 18 percent of “human-caused emissions globally.”

Addressing methane from the agricultural and waste sectors will be particularly difficult, said Daphne Wysham, CEO of nonprofit Methane Action, during a briefing at COP27 calling for fast tracking of methane action. “We need to cut methane emissions however and wherever we can, but where we can’t, we’ll also need to develop methane removal capability,” Wysham said.

We need to cut methane emissions however and wherever we can, but where we can’t, we’ll also need to develop methane removal capability.

The fundamental revelation from all this math: We need to address both the short-term impact of methane and the long-term nature of CO2, simultaneously, and climate plans need to account for that. “One of the things we mean when we say ‘net zero done right’ is all greenhouse gases. It’s not just CO2, it’s everything that is relevant for your supply chain,” Keven Rabinovitch, global vice president of sustainability and chief climate officer for the food company Mars, told me at COP26 when we spoke about this issue.

So where do things stand? Here are some methane-related commitments made over the past year and during COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

The EU, U.S., Canada, United Kingdom, Japan, Canada and Norway built on last year’s methane pledge with a new commitment to prioritize reducing emissions associated with fossil fuels production, including methane.
Colombia became the first South American country to regulate “fugitive” methane emissions that escape from pipelines and production, a process that took five years of policy development. Mexico is working with the U.S. on an initiative, and Ecuador is undergoing an assessment.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency updated its proposed standards for cutting methane, including a “Super-Emitter Response Program” that would require oil and gas companies to respond to “credible third-party reports of high-volume methane leaks.” The agency estimates the policy would reduce 36 million metric tons of methane emissions from 2023 to 2035, the equivalent of the annual emissions from U.S. coal-fired electricity generation in 2020. A fee on methane emissions was imposed as part of the Inflation Reduction Act.
The EU has proposed rules for governing methane from the energy sector, but it excludes imported fossil fuels — which account for 90 percent of Europe’s fossil fuel consumption.
Canada is updating its existing guidelines to deliver a 75 percent reduction in methane related to oil and gas by 2030, compared with a 2012 timeframe.
Nigeria, among the top 10 national emitters, is stepping forward as the first African country. Among other things, it will require companies to adopt leak detection and repair messages for oil and gas infrastructure, and improve the efficiency of gas flares.
New Zealand has announced a plan to tackle methane from the agricultural sector, with a proposed tax that would apply to sheep and dairy farmers.

For those keeping counting, yes, that is significantly less than 130 countries, and many projects referenced above are still at the proposal phase. One estimate suggested that only 10 percent of countries have any sort of methane target, although an updated fact sheet released by the White House suggests about 50 countries have a methane target one or are working on one.

Apparently, they aren’t getting significant policy support from corporations. In its report, InfluenceMap notes that in the U.S. and European Union, most corporate engagement related to methane has been “unsupportive or outright oppositional.” When I spoke with Parekh for more detail, he noted that the methane fee ultimately included in the Inflation Reduction Act was attempted at least three times previously before it was able to pass. “It really shows the pressure that policymakers are under,” he said.

Approximately one-quarter of the corporate lobbying around these regulations in both jurisdictions was positive in nature, the InfluenceMap research found.

A number of positive developments related to methane were trumpeted during events surrounding the climate negotiations in Egypt. Among them, the United Nations announced the launch of the Methane Alert and Response System, which uses satellites to detect emissions and notify businesses and governments about them. The system will start with emissions from “large point sources” in the energy sector and will add data for coal, waste, livestock and rice production over time. Funding for the technology came from the Global Methane Hub and the Bezos Earth Fund.

Speaking of money, at least $23 million in funding for global methane mitigation related to the waste sector was announced during COP27 by organizations including Carbon Mapper, Global Methane Hub, RMI, Clean Air Task Force and C40. The move represents the expansion of the Global Methane Pledge focus beyond the oil and gas sector to emissions associated with agriculture and waste from landfills. So far, with the exception of New Zealand, those sources of methane pollution haven’t received as much attention in terms of policy.

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Disappointed by COP27? You Expected Too Much

Claudia Baldwin

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Another COP has come and gone, and the best response to what transpired is a shrug.

For starters, much of the conversation among delegates during the climate change conference hosted annually by the United Nations focused on staying within the limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels. Most scientists already agree 1.5C is unattainable, and we should admit as much.

The biggest outcome of conference is the vague agreement on a “loss and damage” fund to be set up for developing countries hit hardest by climate change. Developed nations agreed to create something, but it’s not clear what it will be or how it will be funded. In essence, an empty bank account has been created to maybe do something, someday. The devil will, of course, be in the details, but I am skeptical such a fund will in the end be raised. Consider that in 2010, developed nations pledged $100 billion a year to poorer countries by 2020 to help them adapt to climate change. That $100 billion threshold was not met in any year between 2010 to 2020. Why should we expect a “loss and damage fund” to be any different?

The cold reality remains that under current policies the world is on track for about 2.7C warming, with the promises behind yet-to-be-implemented Nationally Determined Contributions and all net-zero commitments getting us down to about 2.1C by the end of the century. Still catastrophic.

Unfortunately, COP events have become little more than noisy, expensive and polluting media events where much is said and only incremental progress happens. At this year’s COP, fossil fuel lobbyists outnumbered the delegates from almost every country. It’s hard not to roll one’s eyes and think of the gathering largely as a photo-op and a marketing opportunity for business and governments. There were about 40,000 people attending COP27 and related surrounding events. That is not a conference to save humanity. That is a festival. That is a college football game in America or a Premier League game in England. That is Burning Man.

We have had 27 COPs. Is the problem solved yet?

Lesson learned

Don’t expect a bunch of governments without a clear mandate to do anything revolutionary.

Politicians are many things. They are not courageous. They are not often leaders, though we call them that. They are primarily temperature takers. No pun intended.

If you put any large group of people in a room, it is hard to gain consensus on anything that is not obvious, easy to decide or desperately needed to mitigate an immediate disaster. We shouldn’t expect transformative leadership from COP or any other large gathering like it. Expect platitudes. Expect snappy soundbites meant to play well in the news cycle.

If you want something to change? Well, you have to do that yourself.

A meeting such as COP will only deliver a meaningful message that advances climate when the politicians attending that meeting know it is obvious what course they need to take.

A meeting such as COP will only deliver a meaningful message that advances climate when the politicians attending that meeting know it is obvious what course they need to take. What do these leaders need to make such bold decisions?

They need permission, they need cover. That’s where you come in.

They need their people at home demanding they not come back without a deal. Your consumer choices do that. Your votes do that.

Stop yelling at me, I’m just the messenger

I can hear some of you screaming at your computer, tablet, phone or piece of paper (if you are a monster and printed this out). “How could it be more obvious! We are in a climate crisis! The world is on fire!”

The average citizen in whatever country you are in now probably doesn’t share that sentiment. Sure, they know what climate change is, and that it’s bad. But it isn’t at the top of their list of concerns. The year 2100 is a long way away, so an abstract discussion about 2.7C of warming in 78 years just doesn’t move most people. Yes, there is flooding and fires and extreme weather from climate change now, but most of the rhetoric around impacts throws around dates such as 2050 or 2100. If a problem isn’t at someone’s front door today, it tends to be pushed back as an action item.

During the midterm elections that just happened in America, where I live, climate change came in a consistent sixth or seventh on the lists of concerns that were driving votes. A Gallup Poll from October saw climate change come in seventh on the list of voter concerns, with well under half of voters surveyed saying climate change was extremely important or very important. That is not an emergency to politicians. That is more a “we’ll get to it when we get to it” indicator for politicians. Younger voters do tend to put climate higher on their list of concerns. But the problem needs to be addressed before their generation takes the reins of power.

You have to put it at the top of the list.

Hoping that people in power will make a decision to radically change the status quo has a win-loss record of about 0 to 1 billion. Don’t hold your breath on the status quo changing tomorrow.

We have advanced the conversation around climate change a great deal in the past decade, in the past year, in the past week. Awareness of the problem and discussion of solutions is happening. But it is not happening fast enough and not going far enough. There is more work to be done. A COP conference will help highlight the issue in the public consciousness for a time, but nothing revolutionary is likely to come from future COP meetings.

COPs 28-100 will not solve this

We can no longer ask politely to do something about climate change. That request needs to turn into a demand. Progress on climate is made between the COPs. Yes, we can still have them. But don’t expect much from them; and maybe scale down their ostentatious nature and don’t allow more fossil fuel lobbyists than participants. Just a thought.

We also need to understand that all of these U.N.-sponsored climate meetings, while well-intentioned, might not really be about solving climate change.

After 27 years of meetings with progress that is not fast enough for humanity, I wouldn’t argue with you if you reached the conclusion that COP is not really about climate change. I would politely nod in recognition if you said COP seems to be about keeping the system we have in place as long as we can and ensuring the energy transition we are undertaking is as smooth as possible. You might conclude that all this theatre might be designed to allow for powerful vested interests to slowly steer the status quo to something new that they can control and profit from.

Yeah, that sounds about right.

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Global Market for ‘nature Tech’ Poised to Triple to $6B by 2030

Claudia Baldwin

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The global market for technologies designed to support nature-based climate solutions represents a “burgeoning market opportunity” that could triple to $6 billion by 2030, according to an analysis released last week.

Research led by the Nature4Climate coalition of green NGOs and investment platform Capital for Climate argues the nature tech market is set for significant growth in the coming years as more businesses seek investable, profitable and high-integrity means of meeting their climate and nature goals.

The report defines nature tech as “any technology that can be applied to enable, accelerate, and scale-up nature-based solutions” to combat the climate crisis and values the existing market at around $2 billion, but predicts it is on course to hit $6 billion by the end of the decade. It covers innovations such as satellite rainforest monitoring, tree-planting drones and carbon credit trading software.

Lucy Almond, chair of Nature4Climate — a 20-strong coalition that includes We Mean Business, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) — said she was “hugely excited” by the report’s findings.

Scaling nature-based solutions (NbS) such as forest, mangrove and peatland restoration are critical to delivering on global climate and nature targets, she argued.

“We need nature-based solutions to provide 30 percent of the mitigation required by 2030 in order to keep our global climate and nature goals in reach,” she explained. “The application of technology to NbS makes sense, both for the sake of the planet and financially, since an estimated $44 trillion of economic value relies on nature. It also has a huge role to play in giving people confidence in how nature can help us deliver on our climate targets.”

Global public and private flows of capital to nature-based solutions currently stand at around $133 billion per year, and investment levels need to increase fourfold in real terms by 2050 if the world is to meet its climate change, biodiversity and land degradation targets, according to the report.

But it argues that while the benefits of ‘climate tech’ and ‘clean tech’ are widely understood, awareness of the opportunities ‘nature tech’ presents is far lower, despite the latter being expected to play an increasing role in global climate efforts over the next decade.

The market for agricultural drones alone, which enable precision farming, has skyrocketed and is now expected to reach $5.9 billion by 2026, at least some of which will be targeted toward more climate and biodiversity-friendly farming initiatives, it notes.

Such technologies can help to de-risk investments in nature, boost crop yields, increase transparency and accountability and promote national and regional growth, the report argues.

However, the report warns that nature-based solutions still require substantial investment if they are to be deployed at the pace and scale required to meet global climate and nature goals.

Tony Lent, co-founder at Capital for Climate, described nature tech as “necessary, dynamic and investable.”

“Nature tech is critical to scaling and accelerating investment in nature-based solutions,” he said. “While emergent, the nature tech space also has substantial opportunities for investors.”

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