By David Holmquist
Mac Robinet is deeply concerned about climate change. A physicist by training, Mac worked for 37 years at Argonne National Laboratory performing research in the field of health physics. He has lived in Oak Park for 50 years, and served for six years on the Energy and Environment Commission where he became involved in the issue of renewable energy and community aggregation for the purchase of electrical power. The aggregation issue became contentious last year when the Village Board contracted for the so-called ‘brown energy’ option when they chose our municipal electricity provider.
But Mac had been concentrating for years on a particular feature of Oak Park’s electric power provisioning: the surcharge of 1/10th of a cent per kilowatt-hour for the purchase of Renewable Energy Certificates.
Renewable Energy Certificates, typically referred to as “RECs,” are tradable certificates issued as proof that an energy provider has furnished one megawatt-hour of electrical power to the grid, generated from an eligible renewable resource. They come in two flavors. Compliance RECs are legally binding commitments to provide renewable energy to a specific electrical grid within a specific time frame, and are used by utilities to prove that they are in compliance with state requirements under a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). Then there are voluntary RECs. Mac describes these as having been “invented” in the market to give organizations and individuals a means of donating funds to encourage the production of new renewable energy. He also points out that they carry no legal obligation or penalty for non-compliance.
The surcharges under the Oak Park aggregation contracts have gone toward the purchase of voluntary RECs. Mac wanted to know what ratepayers were financing with their donations. Who was getting the money? What kinds of projects were we supporting? Were we actually helping to lower carbon dioxide emissions?
No one has been able to answer his questions. The Village of Oak Park receives no reports on the expenditures, and the energy providers are only responsible for buying the certificates. The funds are bundled and distributed by certifying organizations under programs such as Green-e Climate, Green-e Energy, and Green-e Marketplace. These organizations certify and make markets for RECs and other forms of carbon offsets. This sort of financialization is seen by many as the model for driving the transition to a low-carbon economy through ‘market-based’ incentives and ‘flexibility.’
The idea of supporting renewable energy development has captured the imaginations of all who are concerned with sustainability, in Oak Park and around the world. But the mechanisms that have been established for that purpose seem to lack transparency and accountability. Mac Robinet has called on us to take direct responsibility for combatting climate change in a genuinely democratic fashion. He has proposed that the RECs “donation” be replaced with a surcharge of roughly the same amount, providing a funding stream that would be controlled by the village. The funds generated could be leveraged with grants, and used to support renewable energy projects at the local level where their impacts can be monitored and evaluated. The Energy and Environment Commission has recommended to the Village Board that Mac’s idea be incorporated into their requests for bids for a new aggregation contract to go into effect later this year.
On Monday, June 8, the Board met to consider action on the aggregation contract, and decided to extend the current agreement with Constellation Energy for 60 days while evaluating the pricing options and making efforts to expand the number of bidders for the contract. The trustees also discussed the need to develop specific plan options for projects that might be undertaken by the village under what President Anan Abu-Taleb called “the Robinet Option.” The purchase of RECs is still an option available to the Board, but Mac’s arguments in favor of local control and project implementation appear to have won the day.
The discussion now turns to the amount of the surcharge and the projects that will be funded by the revenue. It was suggested at the trustees’ meeting that the surcharge might be set as high as 3/10ths of a cent per kilowatt-hour. Possibilities for projects included an existing Smart Cities proposal, energy efficiency upgrades in public facilities, and community solar infrastructure. This is shaping up as an exciting opportunity for all of us to help transform the Robinet Option into hard renewable energy assets for Oak Park. Stay tuned.