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Understanding Carbon Neutral Energy

When shopping for low electricity rates, you will inevitably encounter offers flagged as being green or renewable. In a previous post, we discussed how electricity providers create green energy offers.  You might also encounter offers for “carbon neutral” electricity and natural gas.  It is important to understand what you are buying when selecting a carbon neutral product.

Background

Our climate is in a constant state of change. We are currently in an ice age that began over 2.5 million years ago.  Within this ice age, there have been glacial periods and interglacial periods.  We are in an interglacial warming period that started about 10,000 years ago.  Carbon is a component in several greenhouse gases that have been associated with increasing the rate of warming.  Without wading into the tar pits of climate change policy, let’s take a look the mechanics of carbon neutrality.

Carbon neutrality involves a bit of history and science. Travel back many millions of years ago.  Trees, plants, and other flora removed carbon from the atmosphere just as they do today.  When this organic matter died, the carbon remained trapped in their cells.  Given sufficient time and pressure, this organic matter eventually became a coal deposit.  We mined the coal and used it as fuel in a power plant to create electricity.  The carbon, trapped so long ago, now re-enters our atmosphere.

Managing Carbon

Today’s trees and plants are already busy capturing carbon active in our current environment. Through fossil-fuel combustion, we are adding a lot more carbon to the system.  How do we neutralize this excess carbon?  There are two concepts for carbon reduction.  The first is to reduce the amount of prehistoric carbon we are introducing to the environment.  The second is to enhance nature’s capacity to process carbon.

Carbon reduction projects include a wide range of approaches. Renewable energy generation projects like wind and solar are good examples.  Electricity from these sources is generated without releasing carbon into the environment.  This reduces the amount of electricity generated by fossil fuels.

Reforestation projects are a good example of increasing nature’s capacity to process carbon. Other projects include capturing landfill gases and reducing carbon emissions at manufacturing sites.

Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets are created when carbon emissions are reduced from what would have otherwise occurred.  Think of them as rewards for doing a good deed for the environment.  Carbon offsets are needed to meet government mandates.  Companies and individuals interested in carbon reduction also desire them.  This gives carbon offsets value and creates a market for them.  Carbon reduction projects are expensive.  Without the funding created by the carbon offset markets, many of these projects would not be possible.

If you purchase and retire carbon offsets to match the amount of carbon you generate, you achieve carbon neutrality. This means you can make just about anything carbon neutral.  The natural gas or heating oil in your home can be carbon neutral.  Electricity from a coal-fired power plant can be carbon neutral.  Reputable energy providers will be able to substantiate their claims either by using a recognized certification program or by providing a statement from an independent auditor.

Your actions are the result of a unique mix of your motivators. If carbon neutrality appeals to you, there are plenty of green energy options from which to choose.

About: Charlie Hewitt

Charlie Hewitt has more than 25 years of in-depth energy experience having served in executive and managerial roles at some of the largest retail energy providers in North America. His expertise covers a wide range of retail energy disciplines including pricing, contracting, risk management, and credit. He holds an MBA from UT Arlington, MA and BS degrees in geology from UT Austin, and was a TXU environmental research fellow.

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