Update on PG&E’s ClimateSmart Offset Program

vaneck200.jpgSince my first post dissing PG&E’s offset program, I’ve had phone calls with PG&E, NRDC, 2 calls with members of PG&E’s ClimateSmart External Advisory Group, plus a call with a forestry expert who consults with those who oversee the van Eck forest, which is featured on the “Our Projects” page of the ClimateSmart website. I have four basic conclusions:

1) I still think, in general, the vast majority of electric utilities should not be in the business of selling their customers offsets like trees (as opposed to selling them energy efficiency and renewable power).

2) PG&E is perhaps a special case since state regulations have driven them to be a leader on both energy efficiency and renewables. This is an important point, since many other utilities are looking to PG&E’s program as a model but, I doubt groups like NRDC would be thrilled to see most U.S. utilities adopt a similar program.

3) But trees are still lousy offsets (even offset seller Terrapass thinks so), and PG&E was wrong to start by emphasizing forestry offsets and especially wrong to feature the van Eck forest on their website. They have modified their website slightly — they still feature only trees as offset projects but say the van Eck forest is “shown for illustrative purposes as the type of project that may be eligible for the ClimateSmart competitive selection process” — now that’s the kind of nano-success for Climate Progress that makes all this blogging worthwhile!

4) To customers for most U.S. utilities who want to become “climate neutral,” I would recommend A) doing all cost-effective energy efficiency, B) purchasing 100% renewable power or — if renewable power is unavailable in your area — renewable energy credits or green tags, and C) Buying offsets for your remaining emissions.

5 Responses to Update on PG&E’s ClimateSmart Offset Program

  1. I can’t think of any carbon credits/offsets/reductions at this point that aren’t dicey- most on the CCX are CO2e reductions from polluting practices (like methane capture on municipal solid waste landfills or mines).

    Trees, like any offset, must be permanently protected (via easement or other mechanism), maintained, and monitored post-construction. The level of commitment is inconvenient to the market but necessary to protect the function trees serve; we have this begun to require this follow-up in environmental restoration and it is no different in the greenhouse gas context.

    Trees provide significant benefits in the Northern latitudes and have a negligible albedo effect when compared to other urban structures- see It’s tempting to write trees off because they are part of the natural carbon cycle and do not count to the IPCC, but a significant portion of global warming is from deforestation. Trees have a much greater potential for total CO2 reductions and are less costly per ton of credit than the carbon sequestration that the “Clean Coal’ advocates are pushing so avidly.

  2. Paul K says:

    I agree that the best offsets are those that promote energy efficiency and renewable power. Shouldn’t most of offset money go towards wind and photo-voltaics. A program that put PV cells on the roofs of schools, libraries and museums would have big benefits. Planting trees can be good if it is done on a massive enough scale. As Shannon says a significant portion (I have seen estimates of 20%) of global warming is from deforestation.

  3. Earl Killian says:

    What I would like to see is an offset scheme where the offset dollars flow in and are accumulated, and every time you reach a $500M dollars or so, the fund builds another wind or solar thermal farm. The revenues from selling the farms’ electricity minus operating expenses would be added back to the fund, making it self-sustaining after a long while. The reinvestment of revenues gives the operation exponential growth (although it is slow, and so depends on the offset dollars for many years). Since it is not operating for a profit, and has a “free” source of capital, it continues to build farms regardless of the market price of electricity. Eventually it pushes out other suppliers (e.g. coal plants) by simply making them uneconomic to operate (e.g. by eventually driving down the price of electricity below their marginal cost of operation).

  4. Alan Page says:

    It is unfortunate that many things are so confusing. I agree that trees are “leaky” carbon storage systems, but there can be no question of the validity of carbon storage offered by applying biochar to the soil in any location. There is a very thorough discussion of the biochar effects and benefits at .
    It is a mistake to state that the trees are the things that need to be protected when C sequestration is the goal. Unless biochar is the vehicle for carbon storage, the trees should be growing as fast as possible. When their growth slow they need to be harvested in a manner that do not damage the remaining trees and they need to be converted into long term products efficiently – not engaged in long distance commerce.
    The production of biochar should be done on a local -small farm and forest- basis and the payments should go directly to those small producers to enhance their ability to pass the land on to family members with a stable income flow as well as a much enhanced farm or forest as the basis for their livelyhood.
    There is much more to say.

  5. Alan Page says:

    For some reason the reference to – – was dropped in the comment above.