Monday, 24 July 2023 06:41

It’s Not Easy Going Green

At the trash incinerator in Palm Beach County, Fla., claws grab garbage from a giant pit and transfer it to boilers, where it will be burned to generate electricity. Credit: Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County

There’s a way to “fight” climate change that’s cheap, popular and completely ineffective.

When they were invented in the ’90s, renewable energy certificates were meant to stimulate the green energy market. Back then, building wind and solar farms was way more expensive than it is today. The idea was that renewable energy producers could sell certificates that represented the “greenness” of the energy they made. Anyone buying those certificates, or RECs, could claim that green power and also claim they were helping the environment.

For years, corporations have bought RECs as a low-commitment way to claim they’re “going green” – all while using the same old fossil fuel-powered electricity.

So how exactly do RECs help the climate crisis? This week, Reveal investigates RECs and finds that the federal government uses them to pad its environmental stats.

Reveal’s Will Evans starts with Auden Schendler, the man in charge of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Co. Schendler initially convinced his company to buy RECs to go green, then realized he made a mistake. But even after he spoke out and evidence piled up showing that RECs were ineffective, other companies kept buying them – and the federal government did, too. Evans and Reveal’s Melissa Lewis determined that since 2010, more than half of what the government has claimed as renewable energy was just cheap RECs.

Next, Reveal’s Najib Aminy takes us to Palm Beach County, Florida, to find out where some RECs are made: in a trash incinerator. Amid all the sounds and smells of burning garbage, Aminy looks into whether buying RECs actually helps the environment and where the money goes. He meets Andrew Byrd, who lives nearby and worries about the fumes. It turns out that federal agencies bought RECs from this incinerator in order to meet renewable energy mandates.

Finally, we explore another place where the government buys RECs: two biomass plants in Georgia, where residents complained of toxic pollution. Evans looks into where the government’s modest environmental goals come from and why federal agencies buy RECs in the first place. He also talks to a REC industry veteran and examines how a plan from the Biden administration could change things.

Dig Deeper

Read: Little Green Lies (Bloomberg)

Read: What Really Happens When Emissions Vanish (Bloomberg)


Reporters: Will Evans and Najib Aminy | Producer: Najib Aminy | Editors: Jenny Casas, Katharine Mieszkowski and Kate Howard | Data reporting and analysis: Melissa Lewis | Fact checkers: Nikki Frick and Kim Freda | Production managers: Steven Rascón and Zulema Cobb | Digital producer: Nikki Frick | Original score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, with help from Claire Mullen | Interim executive producers: Taki Telonidis and Brett Myers | Host: Al Letson | Legal fellow: Dara Gray | General counsel: Victoria Baranetsky | Thanks to: Mohamed Al Elew and Andrew Donohue

This story was supported by Emerson Collective. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Park Foundation.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Speaker 2: No matter what you’re looking for in a ski vacation, Aspen Snowmass has you covered.
Al Letson: Aspen, Colorado is a ski town, a snow sport paradise.
Speaker 3: I had no idea how big Snowmass was. This is rad. Okay, so everything we just rode was sick. All the drops have been sick. But apparently we’re going somewhere sicker, which is sick.
Al Letson: Here in the Rockies, Aspen Skiing Company operates four different resorts that all use a lot of power. The person who worries about where that electricity comes from is Auden Schendler.
Auden Schendler: You’re running ski lifts, you’re running buildings, you’re making snow.
Al Letson: Auden is in charge of sustainability for the company and back in 2006, he made waves by making it the first ski resort in the country to go 100% green. That was after years of effort. At first, Auden tried installing solar panels and energy efficient light bulbs around the resort. But it wasn’t making enough of a difference. So he turned to another option that would cover the whole resort and was way less work.
Auden Schendler: Well, if you’re digging around and saying, “Hey, how can I buy clean energy?” This was the way you buy clean energy, with a renewable energy certificate.
Al Letson: A renewable energy certificate, also known as a REC. We’ll get to how they work in a little bit, but for now, what you need to know is Auden bought them. The Aspen Skiing Company could claim it cleaned up its dirty electricity. And Auden became something of a clean energy darling. Time Magazine called him a climate crusader and his work was being nationally recognized.
Auden Schendler: I went to DC and got an award from the EPA. Local papers covered it, and we got accolades, but it was definitely under a year that I realized that I had made a mistake.
Al Letson: The more on looked into how RECs worked, the less he believed they did anything. So he did something you are really not supposed to do as a corporate executive. Admit that the good things you claim to the public might not be true.
Auden Schendler: I was branded a semi insane bomb thrower.
Al Letson: Auden spoke out to the press. He was featured in a Business Week article exposing RECs as quote, “little green lies.”
Auden Schendler: That magazine article almost cost me my job. People were like, “What the hell’s wrong with you?” I got brought in front of senior management and people saying, “What were you thinking?”
Al Letson: That was all back in 2007, 15 years ago. But RECs, the thing Auden was ringing the alarm bells about, companies are still buying them today. In fact, they’re one of the easiest and cheapest ways for companies to appear more green than they actually are. Reveal’s Will Evans looks into why this tool, one that was debunked years ago, is still flourishing today.
Will Evans: It was 2006 and going green was all the rage.
Al Gore: Each one of us is a cause of global warming, but each of us can make choices to change that.
Will Evans: The movie An Inconvenient Truth had just come out. It was Al Gore’s documentary about global warming.
Al Gore: The solutions are in our hands. We just have to have the determination to make them happen.
Will Evans: There was a surge of public interest in climate change and how to fight it, even on stage during Hollywood’s biggest night.
Speaker 7: Ladies and gentlemen, the thrice nominated Leonardo DiCaprio and Vice President Al Gore.
Will Evans: This is a special announcement made at the 2007 Oscars.
Leonardo DiCapr…: Tonight we’re proud to announce that for the first time in the history of the Oscars, this show is officially gone green.
Will Evans: Many of the green energy claims at the time involved the purchase of RECs. The Environmental Protection Agency was promoting them as an easy way to go green and awarding companies for buying tons of RECs.
Speaker 9: With renewable energy certificates, also known as RECs, you can purchase renewable power and help the renewable energy market to grow.
Will Evans: This is from an EPA promotional video.
Speaker 9: So how can a consumer like you know that the power you’re using is from renewable resources? That’s where renewable energy certificates come in.
Will Evans: Each REC represents a unit of renewable energy that was produced and pumped into the grid somewhere.
Speaker 9: If you buy the REC, you are now the owner of that green power.
Will Evans: Like the name suggests, a renewable energy certificate is just a certificate. When you buy one, you’re really just buying a piece of paper or a PDF and that certificate represents in theory one green megawatt hour.
Speaker 9: RECs allow you to claim that the electricity you use came from a renewable resource with low or zero emissions.
Will Evans: And making that claim is not very expensive. RECs are cheap. They can cost anywhere from several dollars to just around a buck each, depending on where they come from and when they were made. So if you’re a business guzzling electricity, no matter where you’re getting your power from, you can pay a relatively small sum to say you’re 100% green. For instance, you could offset the electricity use of the average American home for a whole year with just around 11 RECs. But, wait, there’s more. RECs allow you to claim renewable energy without having to install a single solar panel or wind turbine or change any of your energy habits. It’s that easy.
Speaker 9: RECs really do make a difference. By buying RECs you’re providing revenue to support renewable energy projects.
Will Evans: But it’s not like the green energy you’re claiming helped power your toaster or turn on your fan. You can be in California and own a REC made in Georgia. It’s totally disconnected from your actual energy use. The whole point of RECs was to incentivize more renewable energy. When they were invented back in the ’90s, building wind and solar farms was way more expensive than it is today. The idea was that RECs could create another revenue stream for renewable energy producers. Wind and solar farms could make money from selling their energy and from selling RECs. And that additional money would motivate them to produce even more green energy.
Auden Schendler: It sounded good and you couldn’t square the circle of getting your company clean electricity any other way. There was no other way, short of building your own giant generation plant, wind farm, solar farm or whatever.
Will Evans: And because they weren’t about to build a giant wind or solar farm, Auden Schendler convinced his bosses at Aspen Skiing Company to buy RECs, more than 20,000 of them. And with those certificates, the resort could claim that it offset 100% of its electricity use with renewable energy, but nothing had changed about how they were using power or where it was coming from. The RECs he bought covered the energy use of four ski areas, three hotels, two athletic complexes, and a golf course and they only cost $42,000, a tiny fraction of the company’s entire energy budget.
Auden Schendler: If something is so cheap as to be almost free, that means it has no value. It was like Economics 101. So I’m buying what? And it costs me almost nothing? To do basically the hardest thing in civilization, decarbonizing, is what we have to do as a society. And it was only a few bucks? Can’t be right.
Will Evans: Auden starts asking around. He hears from some friends in the field that, “Yeah, they don’t think that RECs do anything.” So he turns to the people who sell the RECs, peppering them with questions. How are the RECs he bought actually making a difference to wind farms? How is this purchase creating more renewable energy?
Auden Schendler: Later I got into some really in your face conversations with RECs salesman where I said, “I want you to show me that this REC caused the creation of clean power.” “Well, Auden, this is a complicated industry and this is a market.” “Did my purchase reduce emissions in the world the way you are claiming? Can you show me?”
Will Evans: And when they couldn’t, Auden was sure RECs were a scam. Now, he could have kept his mouth shut and continued to claim that his ski resort was green. But when a Business Week reporter asked him questions for a story about RECs in 2007, Auden didn’t hold back. He basically admitted that his own company’s 100% renewable energy claim was an empty boast.
Auden Schendler: People were like, “What the hell’s wrong with you?” And I was saying, “Look, I’m trying to do this thing transparently and we’re not succeeding.” But I got brought in front of senior management and people saying, “What were you thinking?”
Will Evans: How did you get in trouble?
Auden Schendler: Well, first when it happened, I got a call. And it was the head of HR and he’s like, “Hey, can we talk on Monday?” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” And I get back to my office, all my furniture had been removed, as if you’d been fired. Now it turned out that both of those things were a joke by the CFO, who is my friend. And it was like, “Ha ha.” But then I got grilled in front of senior management by the CEO, and it wasn’t a joke.
Will Evans: Auden didn’t end up losing his job. And he kept spreading the word about RECs, joining a small but growing number of vocal critics. Several studies came out showing that RECs don’t actually lead to more renewable energy.
Michael Gillenw…: You look at it empirically and the answer is no, it’s not having an impact.
Will Evans: Michael Gillenwater is a founding director of The Greenhouse Gas Management Institute, a nonprofit focused on carbon accounting. He spent more than 15 years studying emissions. And he says there’s no proof that these RECs have helped with any expansion of renewable energy.
Michael Gillenw…: There really is no noticeable change in the amount of solar and wind farm investment because of this kind of voluntary certificate market.
Will Evans: The RECs we’ve been talking about are these cheap ones, ones that companies can buy voluntarily on the open market, that are sold separate from any actual electricity. There are better ways of buying renewable energy and there are RECs that are more effective. But the market for cheap and ineffective RECs has just continued to grow. And that’s been helped along by one big player.
Michael Gillenw…: The government essentially blessed this activity and it really took off because now EPA says it’s good, it’s fine. Like, “We can say we’re green. We can say we’re not emitting anything because now we can use as much electricity as we want no matter how dirty it is. And if we just buy some certificates, now all of a sudden we’re clean. We’re absolved of responsibility for climate change.”
Will Evans: Okay, so these RECs have been shown to be a pretty useless tool for making meaningful progress against climate change, though I have heard from people who support the REC market that it’s better than nothing, right?
Michael Gillenw…: What really matters is like, is there less greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? And unfortunately, this particular approach is not working.
Will Evans: Meanwhile, the climate crisis has become more and more dire. Droughts, fires, floods, storms, and other deadly climate related disasters are getting worse. Scientists now think that in the next decade we’ll pass the critical 1.5 degree Celsius mark, after which the effects of global warming become increasingly catastrophic.
Speaker 11: An astonishing milestone this week.
Speaker 12: It was the hottest day since sometime in the last interglacial period, 125,000 years ago.
Speaker 13: Earth reaching its highest temperature on record for a fourth day in a row.
Will Evans: We’re running out of time and there’s all this effort and money going into something that doesn’t work.
Auden Schendler: I’ve had people in the policy arena and at nonprofits say to me, I say, “Hey, what you’re doing, it’s not solving climate.” And one response I got was, “Well, we got to do something.” And I’m like, “What are you talking about?” If you know the thing isn’t going to work, you have to do something else. You can’t just keep doing the thing that isn’t working.
Will Evans: These days, Auden doesn’t get treated as a semi insane bomb thrower. More companies acknowledge that buying RECs isn’t effective and say they’re moving away from them.
And now are you like, “I told you so.”
Auden Schendler: I try not to do too much of that, but, yeah, it was so obvious. But here’s the thing I told you so, but nothing’s changed. Corporations are still buying RECs. The market hasn’t changed.
Will Evans: What if I were to tell you that the federal government buys cheap RECs to fulfill its renewable energy goals?
Auden Schendler: Yes, I know. I know that’s happening.
Will Evans: Does that surprise you at all?
Auden Schendler: There’s a couple people who have blown the whistle on this, so you’re talking to the guy who blew the whistle on it. So no, I’m not shocked.
Will Evans: But it’s still happening, 2023, and it’s the federal government.
Auden Schendler: And it’s fraud on a national scale and it’s waste of taxpayer money that’s astounding and awful. And here’s the kicker. It’s being done by well-intentioned people.
Will Evans: The federal government buys millions of RECs to meet its sustainability targets, cheap RECs, bought with taxpayer money so the government can appear more green than it actually is. In fact, since 2010, more than half of what the government has claimed as renewable energy was just cheap RECs.
Al Letson: And some of the places where the government buys these certificates are pretty questionable.
Najib Aminy: How hot is it in there?
Ray Schauer: Right there is probably about 1500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Most people say, “If I could see hell, this is what it would look like.”
Al Letson: We’ll take you into the inferno where some of those RECs are made. That’s next on Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Close your eyes. Unless you’re driving, then keep them open. But if you’re not, close your eyes. Now when you hear the term renewable energy, what comes to mind? Maybe you’re picturing a pastoral landscape, hills to the horizon dotted with windmills, the blades spinning in sync. Or maybe you are imagining a harsh desert expanse with row after row of solar panels mirroring the rays of the sun. But there are other forms of renewable energy on the market that are made in ways that, well, they don’t seem so green.
Speaker 15: Some call it the Disney World of Trash.
Al Letson: Take, for example, this place, in Palm Beach County, Florida.
Speaker 17: They call it the Pit, and it has a bottomless appetite gorging on all the garbage dumped in Palm Beach County each year.
Al Letson: It’s a trash incinerator. And it produces RECs, those renewable energy certificates you just heard, about some of the cheapest ones on the market. In 2022, multiple federal agencies bought RECs from this place and used them to meet their renewable energy mandates.
Najib Aminy: So it looks like there’s some kind of landfill to my left. If I were to eyeball that, let’s call that six, seven stories. I guess this is where trash goes to turn into energy, huh?
Al Letson: We sent Reveal’s Najib Aminy to the so-called Disney World of Trash. He starts us off on the ground floor.
Najib Aminy: So there are 10 floors in this elevator well?
Ray Schauer: Yes, 10 stories.
Najib Aminy: Okay. And as soon as I walked into this elevator, that’s when I got the whiff.
Ray Schauer: Smells like money to me. I don’t-
Najib Aminy: Smells like money. Oh, interesting, interesting.
Right here is the smelliest part of the tour. But for my guide, Ray Schauer, it’s all just a matter of perspective.
Ray Schauer: This is probably the most odiferous part of the facility right now.
Najib Aminy: I got you.
Ray Schauer: But if you’ve ever been in a landfill and smelled landfill gas, this is very, very mild compared to that.
Najib Aminy: Ray is one of the brains behind this whole trash turned renewable energy facility. He helped design and oversee the construction of this entire plant and now manages its operations.
And you’ve been here how long?
Ray Schauer: A little over 20 years now.
Najib Aminy: So you have a good sense of how this all works?
Ray Schauer: I hope so, yeah.
Najib Aminy: Me too. Me too. Okay. So where are we headed?
It might be the safety vest or the way he holds his hard hat to the side or how his pen is clipped just below the third button of his polo shirt. Ray looks the part of an engineer, but really he’s like an orchestra conductor. He’s got to make sure this entire complex runs smoothly, in harmony.
This musical piece starts with a convoy of trucks packed with trash from all over Palm Beach County. Rotten food, diapers, old clothes, construction debris, plastic bags, styrofoam, you name it. Those trucks empty out thousands of tons of garbage a day into a massive pit.
Ray Schauer: You got about 20, 25,000 tons of Palm Beach County’s finest garbage right there.
Najib Aminy: Next, three giant claws, all of them capable of holding nine tons of garbage in each grasp, sift through the waste. Then these piles are dropped into a chute, and pushed into a furnace.
Ray Schauer: So we’re looking at the flames from the combustion of the waste.
Najib Aminy: How hot is it in there?
Ray Schauer: Right there is probably about 1500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Most people say, “If I could see hell, this is what it would look like.”
Najib Aminy: Now, making energy out of burned trash is not as easy as lighting it on fire. There are a lot of toxic byproducts that must be accounted for, lead, mercury, particulate matter, and other chemical compounds that are harmful to people. And to help limit all that this facility has an intricate apparatus of cables and piping, more than 400 miles of it.
Ray Schauer: Under us and out in front of us here is all the air pollution control equipment. So you get a sense of the scale and the importance and the function of this equipment.
Najib Aminy: This is the sound of air being moved around.
Ray Schauer: This is the sound of air being purified, yes.
Najib Aminy: This whole operation produces a melody, rich in texture, but poor in rhythm, and interrupted with the occasional solo.
This is no John Cage, 4′33. To the untrained ear, it sounds like chaos, but to Ray?
Ray Schauer: Right now, it sounds pretty good. Everything sounds like it’s working right.
Najib Aminy: But the thing I’m really here for, the grand finale to this entire musical piece, is the steam produced from burning all this garbage, and where that steam ultimately goes.
Ray Schauer: This is where the steam comes to turn the turbine, the turbine’s connected to the generator, and the generator makes the electricity.
Najib Aminy: So in this building, this is where the electricity is-
Ray Schauer: Is made.
Najib Aminy: -physically getting made.
Ray Schauer: Yes.
Najib Aminy: This is how a REC is born. With each new megawatt hour of electricity made, a new REC is now available for purchase. Since last year, the incinerator has sold more than 1.6 million renewable energy certificates. And in a given year, this incinerator can generate enough electricity to light up 45,000 homes. It’s not as much as say a coal power plant, but for a landfill it’s still a substantial amount of electricity.
I mean, this is trash being turned into energy.
Ray Schauer: The ash burning made the steam that’s making the turbine turn and turning the generator.
Najib Aminy: Renewable energy.
Ray Schauer: Yes, absolutely.
Najib Aminy: Is this the future?
Ray Schauer: I believe so. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be, yes.
Najib Aminy: But not everyone believes in the Disney world of Trash the way Ray does.
Speaker 19: Head east on West Eighth Street, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, toward Old Dixie Highway, President Barack Obama Highway.
Najib Aminy: If that’s not Florida for you.
I head a few miles east to Riviera Beach, where you won’t see the gaudy mansions, fine art studios, or panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean that have come to define Palm Beach County. No, here you get a different kind of trifecta, like an industrial park, a port, and a power plant.
Andrew Byrd: Yeah, everything in one big area. This right here is the oldest neighborhood in Riviera Beach.
Najib Aminy: For Andrew Byrd, this right here is home. Andrew knows the neighborhood well. Aside from living here most of his life, he also spent several years working locally as a city planner. And he’s seen a lot of change happen here.
Andrew Byrd: As a child, I grew up going to school right back here. I used to walk there around Lincoln Elementary and then walk across the field, which was nothing but sand dunes. This entire area.
Najib Aminy: Sand dunes?
Andrew Byrd: Yeah.
Najib Aminy: I don’t see any sand dunes here.
Andrew Byrd: Yeah, you’re not going to see maybe any sand either. Everything is paved over. This whole entire area now is so different. It’s not the same as it used to be at all. I’ve lived for, how long have I lived here? Since I was eight years old. I’m 70 now. I think I told you that.
Najib Aminy: You look 21. Don’t worry.
Andrew Byrd: Thank you.
Najib Aminy: But there are some changes that Andrew just can’t get used to.
Andrew Byrd: Go ahead, push it down. There you go. Can you smell that?
Najib Aminy: Describe the smell.
Andrew Byrd: To me this is almost like it has some waste in it. It has a lot of like burnt pipe, burnt plastic pipe. Oh my God. And then you got all those bags from the groceries. You ever lit one of those on fire? They smell just like this, those grocery bags. This thing is awful.
Najib Aminy: For what it’s worth, I could smell what Andrew was talking about, and it was exactly as he described it, like a faint industrial musk.
Andrew Byrd: There it is again. Take the smell. It’s one of those. The house is on fire smell. It’s something burning in the house.
Najib Aminy: I can smell it now, yeah.
Andrew Byrd: You’re always conscious of this is a fire. That kind of smell. You actually stop and go and check and wondering, “Where is that smell coming from?”
Andrew Byrd: Andrew is certain the smell is coming from the incinerator. He says he’s followed the smell to it, that the smell appeared at the same time the incinerator started operating.
Now, tracking smells is an imperfect science. It’s hard to prove exactly where it’s coming from. Palm Beach County doesn’t have air quality monitors near the incinerator or at Riviera Beach. And while the Solid Waste Authority tracks emissions from the incinerator, it also doesn’t have any air quality monitors around the site or the county.
But not everyone agrees with Andrew. I did talk to some people who live much closer to the incinerator who say, “What smell?” Donald Gunderman is a retired insurance executive who lives in a private golf community about a mile away from the plant. And he’s a big fan.
Donald Gunderma…: I smell nothing. It is the best thing that has happened to us. I’m absolutely thrilled that they did what they did.
Najib Aminy: And no complaints?
Donald Gunderma…: None. Not a single complaint.
Najib Aminy: I didn’t smell anything when I visited Donald, but I did find complaints filed to the Solid Waste Authority about odors. Some from Donald’s own neighbors, some who live just a few houses away.
Donald Gunderma…: I know what smell is and I know what smell isn’t. I never, ever, am bothered by any odors. I cannot imagine what else they would want to complain about because as far as I’m concerned, the process of getting rid of our waste and getting something in return makes all the sense in the world.
Najib Aminy: Even the Solid Waste Authority acknowledges on its website that there are smells from the landfill and they have taken steps to mitigate them.
Smell or no smell, incinerators across the country have been criticized for releasing something worse. Pollutants, like lead, mercury, articulate matter, and other toxic chemicals. Even with those 400 miles of cables and piping, this incinerator is still emitting pollutants, including higher rates of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides than an average power plant. In high concentrations both are known to cause respiratory issues. And then there’s the carbon emissions. The Solid Waste Authority says more greenhouse gases would be released if the trash was left to rot instead of burned. But this plant still produced hundreds of thousands of tons of CO2 in 2021 alone.
That’s because burning things like plastics still creates greenhouse gases, which is why the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t consider burning trash a source of green power. Even so, this incinerator sells RECs, those renewable energy certificates, RECs that government agencies buy to offset their own energy use, RECs they use to claim that they’re green.
I explained all this to Andrew and asked what he thought.
Do you believe the energy being produced at that waste site?
Andrew Byrd: Yep.
Najib Aminy: Is helping solve-
Andrew Byrd: No.
Najib Aminy: The broader climate change-
Andrew Byrd: Absolutely not.
Najib Aminy: -problem?
Andrew Byrd: It’s creating a worse environmental problem.
Najib Aminy: Even if they’re selling RECs.
Andrew Byrd: Yeah, I think that’s a false economy, that the notion of RECs is a false economy. I can tell you 1000 ways you could have generated the same amount of power than burning trash. I mean, it’s like for God’s sake.
Najib Aminy: And still, the federal government bought hundreds of thousands of RECs from this site in 2022. The Departments of Agriculture, Commerce and Energy, along with the National Institutes of Health, the US Air Force, and NASA, all bought RECs from here.
Back on my tour, I wanted to see what the Solid Waste Authority was getting out of it. In a given year, RECs help the facility make about-
Ray Schauer: About 170,000 a year, 180,000. 175,000 plus or minus.
Najib Aminy: The incinerator had been going about its business, burning trash for years, until some REC sellers came along with a prospect of easy money. The incinerator started selling them in 2022, 7 years after the plant first opened.
Okay, so RECs bring in plus or minus 175K a year. It sure sounds like a lot, but how does it compare to the total cost to run the facility?
Ray Schauer: The facility itself costs about 28, 29 million a year to run. So it’s the 170,000 versus, so maybe 1%?
Najib Aminy: Pennies in a bucket?
Ray Schauer: Yeah, but it’s still pennies. It’s still pennies.
Najib Aminy: Ray says the money made from selling RECs helps lower the cost for rate payers. In this case, residents of Palm Beach County who just want to get their trash dealt. With by Ray’s calculation, this saves each customer about 18 cents a year, 18 cents. If you’re a Palm Beach County resident, try not to spend all that money at once.
But let’s go back to the original intent of the REC. When they were created back in the ’90s, they were supposed to help green energy producers make more money, more money that would lead them to generate more renewable energy. So if RECs worked the way they were supposed to, somehow this extra cash would be leading to more renewable energy. That’s in theory. But again, in practice?
The money that you’re getting from the RECs, is it going towards any additional creation of a potential future site?
Ray Schauer: It’s going into our general reserve account, I believe, right now. Or general revenue account.
Najib Aminy: So RECs didn’t contribute to any additional green energy. The incinerator is operating as it would have, RECs or no RECs. It’s just another way to make money. And in reality not that much money. And most of the money is going to someone else.
Do you know who’s buying your RECs?
Ray Schauer: You mean from the broker? No.
Najib Aminy: Do you want to know?
Ray Schauer: I do. Yeah, it would be very interesting to know because maybe we could do that direct, but for right now, it’s expedient. So it’s okay for right now.
Najib Aminy: Would you be surprised if it was like federal agencies that were buying your RECs?
Ray Schauer: I wouldn’t be surprised to hear anybody buying it.
Najib Aminy: Do you know how much your RECs are being sold for?
Ray Schauer: No.
Najib Aminy: If they were being sold at a higher percentage or say, I don’t know, like a markup, how would that make you feel?
Ray Schauer: Well, I would expect that they would be sold at a markup. And that’s business.
Najib Aminy: Potentially like a three, 400% markup?
Ray Schauer: That would be a nice profit for them.
Najib Aminy: 75% of the money that government agencies are spending on RECs from this facility isn’t even going to the facility. It’s going to a middleman.
So this is the problem with RECs in a nutshell. The trash incinerator is doing what it was going to do anyway. The money made from the RECs isn’t going towards more renewable energy. And government agencies are buying the RECs to claim they’re green. But did greenhouse gas emissions go down at all because someone bought these RECs? Did anything tangibly change? Is this going to help us avoid climate catastrophe? Sorry, Al Gore. Not at all.
Al Letson: So why are federal agencies still purchasing these kinds of RECs?
Alden Hathaway: You wouldn’t expect your federal agency to be buying boutique RECs, paying a fortune for them. There’ll be some report in a newspaper, maybe yours.
Al Letson: That’s next on Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
In 2019, residents in two rural counties in Georgia started to notice something nasty in the air.
Speaker 23: I wake up in the middle of the night and I think my house is on fire because I can smell it inside my home.
Speaker 24: I have a chemical taste in my mouth. I feel disoriented. And I know I’m being poisoned.
Al Letson: Two biomass plants run by Georgia Renewable Power were burning wood waste, including wood that had been treated with a toxic preservative called creosote. State officials found violations of air pollution limits. They fined the company for leaking black wastewater into a nearby creek, threatening thousands of fish. The company said the plants weren’t emitting anything harmful, but county officials declared a public health emergency and residents protested.
Speaker 25: They’re killing you and they’re killing me. Help stop GRP.
Al Letson: And while community members were speaking out about the pollution, these two plants were producing renewable energy certificates, RECs. And the federal government bought them, hundreds of thousands of them to pad its environmental stats. Reveal’s Will Evans went to ask the people buying and selling these things across the country what they think RECs actually accomplish. He starts in a Georgia courtroom.
Will Evans: The RECs from the Georgia biomass plants are at the center of a lawsuit between two companies, the one producing them and the one selling them. The fight is over the profits.
Speaker 26: These RECs don’t belong to the plaintiffs. They created them and we own them. They’re ours.
Will Evans: This is a lawyer for Sterling Planet, the company selling the RECs. He’s speaking at a hearing earlier this year and what’s interesting is the way he talks about what the company is selling and how little value it has.
Speaker 26: The RECs we are discussing today are biomass and are the least favored of all of the RECs that you can buy and are the lowest cost.
Will Evans: And these RECs from the Georgia biomass plants are especially cheap.
Speaker 26: We purchased from them RECs that were too old to be sold. They couldn’t sell them because they had no value.
Will Evans: Since RECs are used to offset dirty electricity, they’re supposed to come from renewable energy that was made around the same time. If they’re too old, even prominent RECs supporters don’t consider them a legitimate offset. And though these biomass RECs were past their prime, Sterling Planet found a willing buyer.
Speaker 26: We were able to sell them to the military.
Will Evans: Yep, the military bought RECs from these plants. The Departments of Agriculture, Energy and Transportation also bought them. So did the Indian Health Service and the National Institutes of Health. But why? It goes back to this guy.
President Georg…: Thanks very much for the warm welcome. I appreciate you treating a neighbor from Texas so kindly.
Will Evans: Back in 2005, President George W. Bush was about to sign an energy bill that among other things required the federal government to get some of its electricity from renewable sources.
President Georg…: This bill will strengthen our economy and it will improve our environment and it’s going to make this country more secure.
Will Evans: By today’s standards, the requirement is pretty thin. The government only needed to get 3% of its electricity from renewable sources. In 2013, it was pushed up to 7.5%. But the requirement hasn’t been updated since, despite mounting evidence about the urgent need to slash global emissions.
Speaker 30: In a brand new report, hundreds of scientists spell out in excruciating detail how climate change is affecting nearly every aspect of our lives on this planet. They say it’s not too late to change course, but we are running out of time.
Will Evans: And here’s the thing. The government is only hitting its modest 7.5% renewable energy goal by buying millions of RECs. Federal agencies do get some of their own renewable energy directly, from things like solar arrays on military bases, and that’s been increasing over the years. But the law allows those projects to be double counted because that energy was made on federal land.
So if you took away those generous shortcuts, the RECs and the double counting, the most recent numbers show the government is only using about 3% renewable energy. That’s less than half of their target. And the RECs they’re using to make up the difference come from places like the Georgia biomass plants and the Florida trash incinerator.
Leah Stokes: Great. Love it. That’s so depressing.
Will Evans: Leah Stokes is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies clean energy and climate policy. She says the way the federal government has been buying energy is a huge missed opportunity.
Leah Stokes: The federal government uses an enormous amount of energy. People can kind of forget it. Maybe they think about Walmart or Amazon and their carbon footprint, but the federal government’s carbon footprint is actually three times larger than those huge companies.
Will Evans: The federal government is the single largest property owner in the United States. And when you own a lot of buildings, there’s a tremendous potential to generate your own green power.
Leah Stokes: You could actually put solar on the roofs of these federal buildings, on the parking lots. You can pair it with battery storage. So there’s a much better way to go about doing this. You don’t have to be buying garbage, literal garbage, incineration projects, to meet hypothetically clean, air quotes, targets.
Will Evans: The government is supposed to be moving away from garbage RECs, like literal garbage RECs. At least that’s the Biden Administration’s official line.
President Biden: The United States sets out on the road to cut greenhouse gases in half, in half, by the end of this decade. That’s where we’re headed as a nation.
Will Evans: Last year, President Joe Biden signed into law a big climate bill with billions of dollars to stimulate the green energy market. And when it comes to the government’s own carbon footprint, Biden issued an executive order that requires federal agencies to get 100% clean electricity by 2030. Not 3%, not 7.5%, 100%. And it’s supposed to be carbon pollution free. So theoretically, energy from burning things, those incinerator and biomass RECs, wouldn’t count. And there’s a bunch more rules that could make those efforts more effective, but also harder than just buying cheap RECs.
Leah Stokes: The President has said that we have to have 100% clean power by 2030 of all the federal agencies. So there is the law of the land trying to push these agencies in the right direction. And that’s where everyday civil servants really can become heroes because they can say, “Hey, there’s an executive order. We need to meet it.” And they can make better decisions rather than just going for the lowest common denominator.
Will Evans: But if Biden doesn’t get reelected, the next President could kill his executive order. And so far, implementation has been slow-going. The Departments of Agriculture, Commerce and Energy were buying incinerator RECs nine months after the executive order. So were the US Air Force and NASA, even the National Institutes of Health bought RECs from that Florida trash incinerator in order to label one of its laboratories a net-zero energy campus.
I reached out to federal agencies that bought a lot of RECs. None of them would agree to an on the record interview. Some spokespeople sent written statements saying their agencies were supporting renewable energy by buying these RECs. Others said, “they were just following the requirements,” or that they, “just bought whatever was cheapest.” And some didn’t respond at all.
I asked the Environmental Protection Agency to explain why it’s promoted RECs for roughly two decades. They sent me a vague statement, defending RECs as a crucial way to prove a “rightful claim of using renewable energy.” But they did say electricity generated from a trash incinerator is not considered green power.
Andrew Mayock, the Chief Federal Sustainability Officer for the Biden administration also wouldn’t agree to a recorded interview, but I did speak to him briefly and he seemed to acknowledge that the way the government has been doing things has been less than effective. Mayock said the Biden administration has made some pivots and tightened things up so that, “the federal government gets to a place of legitimately running on clean energy, not solely from an accounting perspective.”
Then I went to the other side of the transaction, someone who makes it his business to sell RECs.
Alden Hathaway: As a promoter of RECs, I haven’t changed my belief since the beginning, that RECs have a value. And anytime you buy a REC, you’re providing a extra value to the market.
Will Evans: Alden Hathaway has been a supporter of RECs since the very beginning. He used to work for Sterling Planet, the company that sold the RECs from the Georgia biomass plants, the ones that were burning toxic wood. He still consults with them. Alden hasn’t met a REC he didn’t like.
Alden Hathaway: We need more alternative, clean, renewable energy sources on the electric grid. And the REC is the first round of defense in that battle. So I don’t think there’s a REC that shouldn’t be sold as a REC.
Will Evans: There is one exception. I brought up. Trash incinerator RECs, like the ones made at the site in Florida that Najib visited.
Alden Hathaway: Yeah, those are questionable. They’re questionable RECs.
Will Evans: Alden says he wouldn’t buy them because of the gases and chemicals incinerators can release. But in general, he’s pro REC, even biomass ones. He knows they’re controversial, but he says it makes sense for the government to buy whatever’s cheapest.
Alden Hathaway: You wouldn’t expect your federal agency to be buying boutique REQs, paying a fortune for them. There’ll be some report in the newspaper, maybe yours. “What are these guys planning for?” So they’re very particular about making sure they get the best price on them.
Will Evans: But does that mean that they’re not doing, the government buying these RECs are not doing as much for the environment?
Alden Hathaway: Well, all RECs do something for the environment positive to non-RECs. So I won’t be in the trap of saying government buying these low grade RECs isn’t doing anything for the environment. It is.
Will Evans: And it’s not just price. REC purchases also come down to the politics of how much the government should be spending on climate change.
Alden Hathaway: It would be probably pie in the sky to expect the government to pay top dollar for solar RECs to try to drive the solar market. I’m not saying that isn’t an idea that someone in a blue state hadn’t thought of. Probably think about it a lot more than those in a red state. But anyone in government has to be aware of what that means. Spending our taxpayer money for high value RECs when lower cost RECs are available to meet your climate goals and if you don’t even believe in the climate, you’re going to be out there really complaining.
Will Evans: So what about the whole point of RECs in the first place, to create more renewable energy? Critics say that’s not happening. So I posed that to Alden and his answer is remarkable, coming from such a REC proponent.
Alden Hathaway: They never made a huge difference. I mean, we’ve always been talking the value of the REC as something like the icing on the cake.
Will Evans: Icing on the cake for energy producers.
Alden Hathaway: “I’ll take that little extra money. It won’t make a change in my overall thing, but I’m glad to get a little extra money because every little bit helps.”
Will Evans: At the top of the show, we spoke to Auden Schendler, the Sustainability Director for Aspen Skiing. Remember, he started having second thoughts about RECs more than 15 years ago and he still believes today that whether you’re paying for cheap wind RECs or dirt cheap biomass ones, the RECs still come out the same, useless.
Auden Schendler: If it’s easy and affordable and fun, it’s probably not driving any change. If it’s brutally difficult, uncomfortable, and keeps you up at night and gives you an ulcer, it’s probably meaningful.
Will Evans: Ever since his initial buyer’s remorse, after Auden bought the RECs on behalf of his company, gained a ton of positive attention, and then asked the top brass to walk it all back, he’s been on a campaign towards real tangible change in response to the climate crisis.
Auden Schendler: We realized that it was all our utility. Our utility was mostly coal based and that the way to decarbonize was not to buy RECs, but to actually change the board of that utility.
Will Evans: Auden’s been leading a sort of hostile green takeover of the region’s electric grid. He’s found people to run against incumbent board members and change the utility from the inside.
Auden Schendler: And we spent 15 years doing that and it was highly controversial and very difficult and took a lot of time and effort. And you see why people buy RECs, because it’s so easy.
Will Evans: So he’s not surprised that the government is still opting for cheap RECs to meet its goals, but he’s not happy about it either.
Auden Schendler: This is sort of the theme song to the end of the world, when we’re putting a lot of time and resources into something that we all know doesn’t work.
Will Evans: And that’s a theme song that no one wants to hear.
Al Letson: For now, President Biden’s executive order, the target to make the whole federal government run on clean energy remains just that, a target, which could be undone by the next President. There is a bill in Congress that would make the government get to 100% renewable energy by 2050, 20 years later than Biden’s order. The author, Congresswoman Julia Brownley of California says the country needs a more ambitious law on the books, one that can’t be overturned by a future President. Her bill says the government should use renewable energy produced on site as much as possible, but it also lets the government fall back on its favorite shortcut, buying more cheap RECs.
Our lead producer for this week’s show is Najib Aminy. Jenny Casas edited the show with help from Katherine Miskowski and Kate Howard. Special thanks to Mohammed Al Elew, Andy Donohue, and Melissa Lewis. Support for today’s reporting comes from the Emerson Collective. Nikki Frick is our fact checker. She had help this week from Kim Frieda. Victoria Baranetsky is our General Counsel. Our production managers are the Wonder Twins, Zulema Cobb, and my little brother from another mother, Steven Rascon. Score and sound designed by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. They had help this week from Claire C-Note Mullen. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our interim executive producers are Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis. Our theme music is by Camerado-Lightning.
Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, The Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Park Foundation, and The Hellman Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.