Earlier this month, I saw a lot of fanfare about Apple Inc’s announcement that it is now powered by 100% renewable energy. Based on the headlines alone, many will assume that total decarbonization is now a theoretically solved problem, if only other companies and countries had the eco-consciousness motivating them to replicate Apple’s success.
The problem is, in a literal sense, Apple isn’t powered by 100% renewables. Deep decarbonization is not a solved problem, and we need to look at the whole power grid, not just one company, to understand why.
Very few entities — companies, cities, countries, what have you — actually get 100% of their power from renewables. I went to a big tomato greenhouse in Iceland that was powered entirely by a geothermal power plant, and that was pretty cool. Washington state gets most of its electricity from hydroelectric plants, as does Norway. But these are the exceptions, and what’s more, they are not powered by the generally preferred renewable energy technologies — solar and wind — which, due to their variability, are even harder to run an enterprise on.
Almost always, when you read about a city or company procuring 100% of its electricity from renewables, that entity is indeed consuming a lot of electricity from solar and wind, which is great. But when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, electricity comes from whatever else is on the grid: coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric dams, and the like. The “100%” claims usually come from renewable energy credits (RECs). The entity sells RECs when it is over-generating wind and solar, and buys them when it is under-generating. This allows the entity to achieve 100% renewable electricity in an accounting sense, even while the actual machinery powering it at any given time might be well under 100% renewable.
And there’s nothing wrong with that: renewable energy credits are created by renewable portfolio standards, state-level policies which have mandated and created growth in renewable energy in recent decades. But as to whether solar and wind are technically keeping the lights on 100% of the time on at major cities, companies, and countries, these claims can be more than a little misleading.
As far as energy accounting goes, Apple does appear to be an industry leader. Instead of buying RECs on the open market, Apple’s environment VP Lisa Jackson says that the company prefers to offset its non-renewable energy by buying credits from energy projects it either built or has established long-term power purchase contracts with. In this way, Apple is doing more than other cities and companies have to ensure “additionality” in their renewable energy procurement. Along with companies like Google and Facebook, Apple has worked with local utilities in places like Nevada, North Carolina, and Peru to actually build solar farms to power its data centers and other facilities. Sometimes it signs power purchase agreements with the solar generators, and sometimes it buys that renewable electricity from the local utility.
As much as any major company, Apple is doing its best to generate as much electricity as it consumes with renewables, even if there are major temporal and geographical complications in that equation. So why am I throwing a wet blanket on its “100% renewable” claims?
Because it encourages the idea that all that’s needed to decarbonize is for companies to be better, greener corporate citizens — an idea that is based on a misunderstanding of how electric power systems work.
Buying electricity isn’t like ordering off a menu. A company, or any other entity, can’t sit down at a table and decide to order the 100% renewable entree.
Electric power grids don’t work that way. The power you get from the grid is dependent on the mix of the local generation, and — practically speaking — cannot be selected a la carte style based on your technological preferences.
And companies are not the only organizations that make these misleading claims. The most grandiose and misleading of them tend to focus on electricity generation during a few hours a year, like this typical headline about renewables covering “about 100% of German power use.” But this was only for an hour or so in the early morning, and a combination of gas, coal, and nuclear fired up to generate more than half of the rest of the day’s power.
I’ve written before about how even looking at the scale of a state or a whole country can miss the complete picture. In a 2014 post with Jesse Jenkins, we showed how Iowa, which generated almost 30% of its in-state consumption from wind turbines, is actually part of a much larger grid called the Eastern Interconnection, which as a whole generated only 3% of its electricity from wind. Likewise, while we often hear about Denmark generating over 40% of its electricity from wind power, the Nordic Synchronized Area — of which Denmark, Norway, Germany, and Sweden are members — only generated 8% of its electricity with wind.
The real test is not whether some sub-entity of a grid is able to procure a large percentage of its electricity from renewables in an accounting sense, but whether the grid as whole is decarbonizing.
It’s essential that we consider the entire power grid when talking about penetrations of renewables, nuclear, or any other goals. Companies like Apple may be doing valuable work in building solar farms and investing in renewable energy generation, but they are a long way from offering a scalable roadmap to deep decarbonization. For that, we need to look at what strategies and technologies actually decarbonize entire grids quickly.