EPA Honors Oberlin for Purchasing Green Energy
In February, the Environmental Protection Agency released a list of the top ten colleges and universities in terms of purchasing green energy. Oberlin College was number nine on that list.
With 12,872 megawatt-hours of renewable energy purchased annually — the equivalent of approximately 60 percent of the College’s electricity needs — Oberlin is right behind Evergreen State College (16,250 MWh annually) and in front of the University of Buffalo (12,000 MWh annually).
Oberlin became a member of the EPA’s Green Power Partnership in January 2006. The Green Power Partnership is a voluntary arrangement between the EPA and various organizations to promote and recognize green power purchasing, and Oberlin’s membership made it eligible for recognition in the top ten list. Accompanied mostly by large schools such as Harvard, Pennsylvania State and Syracuse, Oberlin was one of just two liberal arts colleges on the list.
Oberlin buys its green power through Oberlin Municipal Light and Power Services, a non-profit agency managed by the city of Oberlin that provides power to the entire community. The College established its contract with OMLPS in the spring of 2004.
“Buying green power” is a simple enough phrase at first glance, but the reality behind it is considerably more complicated. John Petersen, an environmental studies professor who had a leading role in the move to contract with OMLPS two years ago, was able to elucidate the technicalities of green power production and purchase.
“When you buy your electricity, it comes in the form of electrons,” Petersen said. “You have no idea where those electrons come from. Unless you have solar panels on your house or your Environmental Studies Center, you have no way of knowing whether those electrons are coming from coal, or natural gas or [hydroelectric power].”
When you pay for green power, he explained, “You’re paying to have green power delivered onto the grid,” and subsequently delivered to any number of homes or businesses. It’s the “green attributes associated with that power,” often referred to as green tags, that really matter.
“We pay a base price for electricity at Oberlin College,” Petersen continued. “To make our power green, we pay a premium on that price, and that pays for the green attributes.”
Prior to contracting with the College, OMLPS sold those green attributes to Green Mountain Power, an Ohio agency that buys green tags and sells them back to companies who want or are required to invest in green energy.
“Because OMLPS was selling those green attributes, Oberlin as a community could no longer claim to have that green energy,” Petersen said. “We couldn’t claim that [that energy] was ours because we were selling the right to claim that it’s green.”
The College made an offer to OMLPS to buy all of its green tags available, and OMLPS agreed. The premium for the green tags is an extra $2 per MWh, above the previous cost of $70 per MWh. This 3 percent increase amounts to $25,700 per year added onto the $2.4 million the College spends per year on energy.
According to a synopsis Petersen wrote on the green energy project, “The 13,000 MWh of green electricity that the College is agreeing to purchase will effectively offset the release of 12,600 tons of [carbon dioxide] emissions per year...A 25 percent reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions for the College.”
An important aspect of Oberlin’s program that differentiates it from that of other colleges is the creation of the city’s Sustainable Reserve Fund. When the green tags were previously sold to Green Mountain Power, the premium paid was given back to OMLPS’ customers as a minute decrease in utility bills over the year; Petersen estimated the decrease per consumer at about five cents per year. As part of Oberlin’s contract with OMLPS and the city, the 3% premium, rather than being placed in city coffers or given back to other customers, is placed in a separate fund for community clean energy products.
“We’re paying a premium, but actually receiving a benefit from it,” said Eric McMillion, associate director of facilities and planning.
Petersen emphasized the Sustainable Reserve Fund as the truly distinguishing feature of Oberlin’s green power contract.
“The fact that we’re [purchasing the power] is great but it’s not unique,” he said. “The way we’re doing it is what’s unique.”
So far, the funds have been used to pay for the equipment for testing the feasibility of wind energy in Oberlin, part of an Honors project by College senior Michael Roth. Roth’s faculty advisor is John Scofield of the Physics department.
Petersen said that in the future, Full Circle Fuels, the new biodiesel
station started by Oberlin graduates, might receive funding through the
Sustainable Reserve Fund.