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Economy

A Market for 24/7 Clean Power Might Look Something Like This

Data — lots of data.

Solar panels in a wallet.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

There are two kinds of people who work on climate solutions: Those who still believe in the promise of carbon markets, and those who think the whole concept is fundamentally flawed.

In the first category, you have people like McGee Young, the CEO of a company called WattCarbon. Young is aware of the ways carbon markets can be a race to the bottom — enabling companies to buy cheap certificates that say they used clean energy or reduced their carbon footprint, when in reality their purchase had little effect on the environment or the energy system.

And yet, there’s all this money out there for the taking! Companies want to green their image! Tackling climate change is expensive! There must be a way to funnel corporate sustainability budgets to where they can make a real impact!

To Young, the solution is a matter of better data and greater transparency. “We need a record-keeping system that allows us to raise the bar,” he told me.

Young launched his vision for that record-keeping system on Wednesday — the WattCarbon Energy Attribute Tracking System, or WEATS. It functions similarly to other environmental credit registries: Owners of clean energy assets can sign up to generate credits known as Environmental Attribute Certificates, or EACs, which buyers can then purchase to count toward their own clean energy or carbon goals.

WEATS has two main features that differentiate it. First, it will include credits from small-scale distributed energy resources like residential solar panels, batteries, and heat pumps — clean energy solutions that haven’t really been able to participate in carbon markets until now. Second, each EAC will include granular information about where and when the power was generated, in the case of solar, or the carbon savings incurred, in the case of heat pumps, down to the hour.

The first feature is part of what motivated Young to start WattCarbon. “The clean energy transition is more than just wind and solar, it’s more than just generation,” he told me. But it’s the second that Young said is key to improving the credibility of claims that companies are “using 100% clean energy,” or “achieving net-zero.”

Today, many companies simply buy enough clean energy credits to match their annual energy use, regardless of where or when the energy was generated. But researchers have shown that this strategy can have little to no impact on emissions. For example, if a company is only buying solar credits, but it is using energy at night, its carbon footprint from that nighttime energy could surpass any environmental benefits of the solar it bought.

To solve this, some energy buyers have embraced a concept called “24/7 carbon-free energy,” which means that “every kilowatt-hour of electricity consumption is met with carbon-free electricity sources, every hour of every day, everywhere,” in the words of a United Nations-led initiative to promote the concept. “It is both the end state of a fully decarbonized electricity system,” according to the UN, “and a transformative approach to energy procurement, supply, and policy design that is critical to accelerating its arrival.”

If you’ve followed the recent debate about the green hydrogen tax credit, you might be familiar with the idea. In December, the Treasury Department proposed that hydrogen producers will have to match their electricity consumption with the purchase of local clean electricity generation on an hourly basis to prove their hydrogen is clean enough to qualify for the full value of the tax credit. That means producers can either hook up directly to a solar farm or wind farm or geothermal power plant and operate only when it is generating power, or, it can buy renewable energy credits or EACs that correspond to the hours that it operates.

WattCarbon’s marketplace is one of the first to enable this by requiring sellers to include data about exactly where and when each EAC was produced. It also include the carbon intensity of the grid in the place and time when that unit of power was produced. For example, 1 megawatt-hour of solar power in West Virginia, where the grid is supplied by a lot of coal-fired power plants, would likely reduce emissions far more than 1 megawatt-hour of solar power in California, where the main fossil fuel burned for power is natural gas. Similarly, 1 megawatt-hour of solar generated in the afternoon in California will not do as much to reduce emissions as if that unit of power were stored in a battery and then dispatched at night. On other markets, all of these credits might simply be advertised as 1 megawatt-hour of solar power, and the buyer would be none the wiser.

So what does this new carbon trading marketplace look like in practice? There are a lot of possibilities, but here’s one scenario. WattCarbon partners with a company that helps homeowners electrify their heating or install and manage their solar and battery systems. That third party company can then say to their customers, “As an extra incentive to do this, we can help you sell the environmental benefits it provides to third parties through the WattCarbon marketplace,” and those extra payments are what convinces the homeowner to go for it.

Independent experts I spoke with were cautiously optimistic about what this new marketplace could do. “We need to deploy on the order of a billion machines, in the U.S. alone — and not over a century, but on the order of a decade,” said Kevin Kircher, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, whose research focuses on heat pumps and other distributed energy resources. “So there’s a lot that needs to be done, and just connecting people to money to do the work is really important.”

Wilson Ricks, a PhD candidate at Princeton University whose research informed the Treasury’s proposal for the hydrogen tax credit, said that having a platform where hydrogen companies can procure clean energy from a variety of projects, and with time and location data, would be very useful. He was also intrigued by WattCarbon’s attempt to create EACs tied to batteries because energy storage systems are one of the few resources that can produce clean power when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.

But both Ricks and Kircher warned there are a number of ways this system of credits could fall into the same traps that ensnare many carbon offset projects and reduce their credibility. For one, it’s really hard to get the math right. That’s especially true for a project like a heat pump, where the carbon savings are based on a counterfactual situation where the homeowner would have kept their gas heater. You have to basically estimate how often they would have run it, which opens the door to sloppiness at best and fraud at worst.

Another key criterion — a concept called additionality — is very hard to assess. Would the household that switches to a heat pump have done so regardless of whether they were getting extra revenue from selling EACs? If the answer is unequivocally yes, the credits are meaningless and serve to give corporate emitters an excuse to keep emitting.

Young acknowledged to me that this was likely going to be true in some cases, but still felt that heat pump owners deserved to be paid for the environmental benefits they were providing. “We provide environmental subsidies for large-scale wind and solar, and we don't do that for the things that we're putting into our buildings and our communities. And to me, there’s an inherent inequality in the way that we treat and value clean energy that needs to be addressed.”

That didn’t quite make sense to me — the government provides subsidies for all kinds of clean energy resources, including distributed energy resources, I countered. The Treasury will give you $2,000 for a heat pump and a 30% discount on rooftop solar.

“That’s true,” Young said. “But we don’t have enough money in all of our government programs to truly scale those.”

I couldn’t argue with that. But the real challenge is helping low-income homeowners with the upfront capital to install these devices — after-the-fact payments are not enough. Young said he had plans to create a way for companies to procure EACs in advance from groups of homeowners. The deals would be similar to the power purchase agreements that big electricity consumers like Google and Walmart make with large-scale renewable energy developers, helping to finance those projects by reducing the risk.

“This is a necessary but not sufficient step,” Young said of the version of the marketplace that launched Wednesday. “Without this, we can’t do that. But this by itself would be inadequate for the market to be able to reach its fullest potential.”

Yellow

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal. Read More

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