REC-ing Crew: Does the ‘Greening’ of the Super Bowl Pass Muster?

The Super Bowl is pure American Red, White and Blue. And organizers are trying to throw in a shade of green as well.

This year, the National Football league is undertaking a variety of initiatives — from an urban forestry program to donation of a small solar array — to “green” its operations. The most highly publicized initiative is the purchase of renewable energy credits (RECs) to offset all energy use during the game and the month-long set up.

Kara Scharwath of Triple Pundit had a piece on the NFL’s plan to be “super green.”

To help reduce the impact of that energy consumption, the National Football League and the Indianapolis Super Bowl XLVI Host Committee are partnering with Green Mountain Energy to purchase 15,000 megawatt hours of renewable energy certificates (RECs) generated at wind farms in North Dakota to offset the power associated with the event.

It’s encouraging to see a prominent organization like the NFL making an effort to clean up its operations. But the devil is in the details.

At a second glance, one has to wonder if this REC purchase really makes an impact at all.

RECs are not physical electricity, but the market value of the “environmental attribute” of that clean electricity. As readers of Climate Progress may know, we often write about our skepticism of RECs. (See: Clean Energy Trainwreck: Why Most RECs are Bad, and How to Find the Good Ones.)

By purchasing RECs, organizations like the NFL can claim that they are “powered” by renewable energy, when in fact they are not. Here’s the problem: The RECs bought for the Super Bowl are from existing projects in North Dakota. They are not helping build new projects, and are therefore providing a marginal incentive that does very little to expand the industry.

In an email exchange with Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at the Aspen Skiing Company (and periodic Climate Progress blogger), he expressed his underwhelming response to the announcement:

“Okay, so the farm is up, and the RECs are therefore not doing anything at all. And in my past work I’ve shown that the marginal income from these credits have virtually no influence on new wind farms. What would have influence? Getting congress to re-approve the tax incentives for wind. That would require an ad during the Super Bowl, not buying RECs.

There are a heck of a lot of things the NFL could be doing to actually try to move the needle in the public consciousness, argues Schendler:

“If the NFL really cared about climate change, they’d use the Jumbotron to have James Hansen speak about the urgency of action on climate. They would use the REC money to buy an ad on TV during the Super Bowl to talk to that audience about the need to pressure elected officials on climate action. But that’s the problem right there: the ad costs a ton of money (way more than the REC purchase) and it’s risky, and actually drives change. So it won’t happen.”

I will say, however, that I don’t think it’s an entirely lost cause. Even though the NFL might not be helping new generation come online, this promotion helps show Americans that the organization “votes” for renewable energy. That’s a story still worth telling.

Unfortunately, telling a good story isn’t enough.

If you want to see how the NFL and REC supplier Green Mountain Energy are marketing the purchase, see the infographic below. It’s got some catchy football analogies that may help the numbers stick in people’s minds.

Super Bowl XLVI Goes Green | Green Mountain Energy Company

3 Responses to REC-ing Crew: Does the ‘Greening’ of the Super Bowl Pass Muster?

  1. Mike22 says:

    Agreed that the use of REC’s to green up ski resorts, vacations, Super Bowls, etc, is farcical. Mr. Schendler’s observations on RECs in Colorado, where a rival resort was claiming carbon neutral operation through the purchase of RECs, are accurate. Those were bad RECs for sure, sourced from wind that was already built, and so cheap as to be meaningless.

    However, RECs are a key element of RPS. A market exists for RECs because energy supply companies are required to redeem certificates equal to their obligation under the RPS program.” As CP explained last month, .
    Renewable Portfolio Standards, If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

    RPSs have done vastly more to get renewables into the mix than FITs.

    I love the Super Bowl, though–nothing does a better job at getting the SUVs off the road than having people glued to the big sreens all day. Best time for a winter ride.

  2. Stephen Lacey is correct that “the RECs bought for the Super Bowl are from existing projects in North Dakota.” RECs are produced when renewable electricity is generated, one REC for each megawatt-hour. You can’t buy a widget until it’s manufactured, and in buying them you make widget creation profitable, just as buying RECs makes building clean energy a good bet for current and future investors. RECs aren’t a donation to a future project by design—who would ensure the project got built? Instead they are a way to both track every megawatt-hour of clean energy and confer the environmental benefits to the buyer. Lacey and Schendler are outliers to an industry that has broad consensus on the value of RECs, including from the U.S. D.O.E. and E.P.A., every state with a renewable energy goal, the Green-e certification program, and the entire voluntary market of households and businesses buying renewable energy. RECs embody the environmental value of renewable energy—this is how the NFL can use and support wind energy without having to install one on the roof of Lucas Oil Stadium. No one else is calling for them to also be the primary driver in the complex negotiations of renewable energy project financing.

  3. Jim Tartaglia says:

    I’d like to add further support for RECs. As Mike22 correctly notes, the strength of RECs is crucial to the various RPS programs currently in place.

    In my view, RPSs and other market-based approaches are the most attractive and viable (if not only) way toward a low-carbon economy in the “near” future. I don’t see effective implementation of any GHG regulatory framework in the near future without an over-arching tool that makes renewable investment SIGNIFICANTLY more profitable than the status quo.

    You can call it pessimism, and you’d be right. A majority of elected representatives, chosen by the most advanced political society in the world, can stare in the face of climate science and say “the jury’s still out on that one.”

    What’s far more troubling is the growing favor of Holy Ignorance. Unreasoned denial of what we don’t want to admit has become a virtue among our public officials.

    I fear we are approaching our last opportunities to have rational conversations across the aisle. There’s little room left under the rug for sweeping…soon its going to pulled out from under us.