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Brown Goes Green

On January 17, 2019, Brown University announced it would be converting a Rhode Island gravel pit into a 250 acre, 50 megawatt (MW) solar facility. This project is expected to offset 70 percent of the university’s electric load. To address Brown’s remaining supply needs, the university plans to enter into a power purchase agreement (PPA) with an 8 MW wind facility in Texas. Brown expects that by pairing renewable resources with continuous energy conservation efforts by 2020 it will have cut campus emissions by 67 percent relative to a 2007 baseline.

A 50 MW solar facility in Rhode Island is a big deal! Even after converting this value from direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC), this is still 40 MW of capacity. Of the more than 3,100 utility-scale solar sites in the United States, just 9 percent are greater than 20 MW. Most large solar farms are built in California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, and other large states with greater land use flexibility. The largest solar facility in New England today is just 20 MW.

Brown is not the only university to devise and execute a plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Buying renewable energy certificates (RECs) is trending among universities whose students and faculty advocate for cleaner energy. Importantly, Brown is not simply purchasing RECs from anywhere in the United States; it is commissioning a new renewable resource within its power grid. This means that for the 70 percent of Brown’s power that will now be met through its solar plant, Brown can be confident that it is avoiding the consumption of electricity that would otherwise come from New England’s grid.

This contrasts with commitments from other institutions to buy RECs from outside their electric regions. Purchasing out-of-region RECs doesn’t necessarily guarantee a reduction in emissions. This is because RECs—as a financial instrument—represent the incremental cost to pay for renewables, relative to conventional electric generation. Yet in some regions of the United States, renewable generation is simply cheaper than fossil fuel generation, meaning that new renewable facilities might have been built without the additional financial incentive. Further, RECs that come from in-region resources complement state renewable portfolio standard (RPS) policies and are guaranteed to be additive. Meanwhile, out-of-region RECs run a higher risk of being double counted. While actions to promote clean energy should be recognized, organizations should be realistic about the emissions impact they are making by purchasing out-of-region RECs.

Brown’s actions to mitigate climate change illustrate the problem of scale. What’s soon to be one of the largest solar facilities in New England will provide less energy than is needed by a single university. If New England states are serious about reducing regional emissions, they will need to find creative ways to address common roadblocks to going renewable, such as land use restrictions. One example of this is already underway. Massachusetts’s new SMART program offers increased incentives for solar sites that are built on landfills, canopies, and other underutilized spaces. Still, far more will need to be done in order to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, in line with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.