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Power Sold Separately: Geographies of “Unbundled” Renewable Energy Certificates

Authors: Gabrielle Lichtenstein*, University of Georgia
Topics: Energy, Cultural and Political Ecology
Keywords: Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), neoliberal natures, carbon offsets, political ecology
Session Type: Paper
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This paper examines the political ecology of “unbundled” renewable energy certificates (RECs) and their implications for renewable energy geographies. RECs are the market-based mechanism used to govern flows of renewable electricity in the U.S. Each certificate represents not physical power generation, but instead, the “environmental, social, and other non-power attributes” (U.S. EPA) of one megawatt-hour of renewable electricity, which can be sold separately, or “unbundled,” from the associated physical power. This paper builds on research conducted on carbon offsets, and contends that the unique and complex spatio-temporal impacts of RECs warrant further research by energy geographers. Like other neoliberal natures, RECs enable organizations or individuals to assert ownership of the benefits of electrons flowing through distant grid infrastructures. While the purchaser of unbundled RECs can advertise its service as carbon-free, the underlying electricity remains unchanged — and the renewable energy producer can no longer make such environmental claims. I argue that this obscures the embodied impact of conventional electricity production on frontline communities. Through discourse analysis of documents published by federal institutions, as well as purchasers of RECs and third-party certification organizations, this paper compares the (im)materiality of unbundled RECs with the language used to substantiate claims of renewable energy. As more communities and institutions strive for 100% renewable electricity, understanding the REC market is of crucial importance.

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