Cleantech Investing, Carbon Credits and RECs (Part 1)

by: Rob Day

Investors and entrepreneurs have been having a lot of conversations lately about the carbon offset and green tag markets and where they're headed. For example, last week NEEIC organized a very well-organized event at Foley Hoag's Waltham office with several expert speakers, who addressed a room full of investors about the general topic. It seems like most cleantech investors are trying to get smart on what exactly carbon credits and RECs are, and what they could mean for their investments. This week's supreme court ruling on the subject (note: pdf) just added further fuel to the fire (so to speak)...

To start with -- what are carbon credits, and what are RECs, and why are they different? It's a confusing issue right now. You can get some useful descriptions here, but let's break it down into the differences from an investor's perspective:

Carbon credits ("offsets") are a representation of a physical commodity (albeit in this case a "negative" one). If you own a 1 ton carbon emissions reduction credit, you literally own that physical attribute -- one ton of avoided emissions of carbon into the air. In this way, they're similar to NOx, SOx and other pollution emissions credits. Or like selling a ton of corn or metals or any other physical commodity. Now, measuring and verifying an absence of a physical commodity like atmospheric carbon emissions is tougher than measuring a ton of corn or metal, but the principle remains the same.

Renewable Energy Certificates ("RECs" or "Green Tags") are a representation that the electricity you are using came from green power. That's a very different proposition -- essentially, the REC is a way of branding the electricity. Indeed, in most cases the kwh you actually consume came from a blended mix of fossil fuel-based and renewable sources (mostly the former), so buying a REC is a way of paying extra money that then gets transferred back to the renewable generators in particular (and through other hands along the way...). It's not a physical commodity you're buying. You're buying a label that shows your money went toward something you want to encourage.

It may seem like an esoteric difference, but one way to think about it is this: Carbon credits are related only to climate change; RECs bundle in a lot of other issues as well, such as local air pollution, energy independence, etc. The various differences (physical commodity versus labeling, and climate change-focused versus broadly conceptual) are important for investors, as we'll discuss in the next post on this topic.