Ten years ago, I decided to do everything I could to reduce my greenhouse gas emissions.
But there were some pollution nuts I couldn’t crack on my own. No matter how efficient my light bulbs, the power for them was still coming from coal-fired plants, and I didn’t have the cash or the roof space to buy my own solar panels.
Enter the offset. By paying Bullfrog Power (and later Epcor) to “buy” me electricity produced by wind, solar, and water instead of coal, I could completely eliminate the emissions caused by my electricity use for just a few dollars a month.
A carbon offset is where you pay someone else to reduce their emissions so you don’t have to do so.
Kelly Lund and Dominic Turgeon of Edmonton buy offsets to counteract the emissions associated with their business, Archer’s Blue Car Driving School (which operates in St. Albert).
“One of the first things we did even before we had any customers was we pre-purchased 100 tonnes of carbon offsets from the Carbon Farmer,” she said – an Alberta company that plants trees to offset the emissions of others.
That made their company car a net-zero emission vehicle, as every tonne of carbon it released was offset by one sucked in by the trees they paid to be planted. Lund said they’ve used up 45 tonnes of offset so far, and may get more in the future.
They also pay about two cents per kWh extra for green electricity through Alberta Cooperative Energy to zero out their power-related pollution.
Lund said the offsets have added about $1 to the cost of an hour’s instruction for their students, which hasn’t affected their business. Many students are glad to hear of the offset when they tell them about it.
“Everyone has a piece to play in reducing carbon,” she said, and customers will judge businesses based on their actions.
“It’s definitely where business will need to go.”
RECs and credits
Offsets can take many forms, such as planting trees (as it is with the Carbon Farmer) or building a wind farm, said Christopher Hakes of NatureBank, one of Canada’s biggest carbon management companies. You usually buy them through brokers such as NatureBank at a cost of $0.50 to $40 a tonne.
Lund said the offsets she got through the Carbon Farmer cost about $15 a tonne.
A renewable energy certificate (REC) is a specialized carbon offset, and is what you’re really buying when you “buy” green electricity through a service such as Bullfrog Power, explains Bullfrog CEO Ron Seftel.
“It (the green power) goes into the grid, but it doesn’t necessarily make its way to your house.”
Instead, by paying a power company a premium (typically 2.5 cents per kWh), you get them to produce green electricity that displaces dirtier fossil fuel power from the grid, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Buying the REC lets you claim that reduction.
While Bullfrog used to be the only game in town in Alberta when it comes to green power, there are now many companies offering green power options.
Buying 600 kWh of green electricity a month through Epcor’s Chirp program would add about $14.59 to your monthly power bill, suggests the Epcor Chirp website (assuming electricity costs about 5.46 cents/kWh).
Offsets involve risk and should be thoroughly researched.
Offsets need to be both permanent and additional in order to make a difference, said Gideon Forman of the David Suzuki Foundation: permanent, in that they should not be reversible (e.g. those trees you plant shouldn’t be scheduled for demolition in a week), and additional, in that the reduction would not have happened without your investment.
Determining if an offset is permanent and additional can be a challenge. Hakes recommended sticking with ones backed by the Verified Carbon Standard or Gold Standard – two internationally recognized programs that verify the validity of offsets.
If you’re buying RECs or green power, make sure you check where the green power is being generated.
Green power offsets different amounts of emissions depending on where it’s produced. Add solar to Alberta’s coal-heavy grid, for example, and you’ll displace mostly coal power and have a big impact. Do that in B.C., though, and you’ll displace mostly hydro power for much less benefit.
Because Bullfrog gets its RECs from grids all across Canada, its RECs (according to Seftel) offset about 160 g of emissions per kWh – far less than the 640 g/kWh produced by electricity used in Alberta. If you want to completely offset your Alberta power use, you need to get your offsets from a company such as Epcor or Alberta Co-Operative Energy that sources their green power exclusively from Alberta.
Offsets are also one-shot deals. If you have ongoing emissions, such as from driving, you’ll have to buy more offsets every year to cancel them out. And unlike energy efficiency investments, this is money you won’t get back. That’s why Forman recommends investing in efficiency first.
It’s best to invest in efficiency and renewable power production before you go for offsets. But if you can’t afford that electric car or can’t avoid that flight, offsets can be a relatively cheap way to make a difference.
Step: Buy green power.
Cost: Assuming you use Epcor’s Chirp Energy and use 600 kWh a month, about $175.12 a year.
Payback Period: None/net cost.
Carbon Saved: 4.6 tonnes/yr at 640 g/kWh.
The Carbon Challenge
The Carbon Challenge will profile different ways you can shrink your carbon footprint and (usually) save money every second week.
Got a carbon question? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.