Green energy. Renewable energy. Clean energy.
We hear these phrases used so often now as political buzzwords, the term “renewable” is so watered down that states can use workarounds to prop up fossil fuel energy under the guise of the green revolution.
Unfortunately, Maryland’s renewable energy plan is no stranger to these workarounds.
What is an RPS
A state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) is its framework to develop renewable energy based on a projected timeline. Maryland’s RPS goal is to have 25 percent renewable energy by 2020.
When they were started, RPS programs were an innovative way to push state level expansion of renewable electricity. In fact, about half the renewable electricity built in the United States since 2000 is the result of state RPS programs. But as the science of climate change has advanced, and as the reality of climate chaos has become clear, these programs have fallen behind where we need to be.
Not only do no states support policy as aggressive as Food & Water Action’s Off Fossil Fuels initiative, but also most RPS reports are lax enough that they won’t affect fast enough change in the state’s energy infrastructure to keep up with climate change.
Maryland -- and many other states -- capitalizes on the public’s misunderstanding of renewable energy to encompass dirty energy sources within its scope.
In our recent study Cleanwashing: How States Count Polluting Energy Sources as Renewable, we found a shocking phenomenon: dozens of states across the country count blatantly filthy, polluting energy sources as “renewable” under their respective renewable energy initiatives.
“Cleanwashing” is the term we’re using to describe the common phenomenon of counting dirty energy as renewable.
Our report assigned a final letter grade to each state that reflects each state’s renewable energy based on three metrics:
- The state’s RPS percent goal
- The state’s inclusion of seven dirty power sources or policies:
- “Clean” coal, nuclear, mill residue, wood, waste incineration, waste methane/biogas, and renewable energy credits (RECs)
- The state’s projected share of electricity from wind, solar and geothermal power over the next 20 years
Maryland is Failing
Based on these metrics, Maryland received an F.
Maryland uses five of these dirty sources, including mill residue, wood, waste incineration, waste methane/biogas, and RECs.
Clearly, as one of the lowest-scoring states in the study, Maryland has a lot of work to do regarding its renewable energy standards.
A major starting point: RECs
Like many other states, Maryland uses RECs to make it seem like it is using less fossil fuel energy than it actually is.
So just what are RECs? As Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility describes them, the term refers to credits that utilities can use “to claim credit for renewable energy produced and sold elsewhere while continuing to buy electricity generated from fossil fuels and nuclear power.”
In their new study Unbundled: How Renewable energy Credits Undermine Maryland’s Transition to Clean, Renewable Energy, the Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility looked at RECs specifically within the broader scope of Maryland’s RPS. The study did a deep dive into Maryland’s uses of RECs to offset dirty energy consumption.
What they found was disheartening
Maryland uses unbundled RECs all the time, and counts them toward the state goal for renewable energy. This means Maryland is counting some of the indisputably dirty energy it creates as renewable simply because it uses subsidies for energy producers that are often located in different states like Virginia and Illinois.
Plus, the RECs aren’t even being used to finance new renewable energy in the state. All the money is being funneled back to the energy producers that bought the credits in the first place.
The study concluded that Maryland’s RPS has significant structural flaws pertaining to RECs that must change if the state is ever to reach renewable energy targets that aren’t just smoke and mirrors.
If Maryland is to ever meaningfully reduce its fossil fuel consumption, it must make an effort to restructure its RPS to exclude dirty energy sources -- especially RECs.
Renewable Portfolio Standards have been an effective policy for pushing states, but they must be vastly improved if they are going to serve as the tool for preventing the worst effects of climate change.
States like Maryland need a game plan. We must set an aggressive timeline to reach 100% clean renewable electricity by doing two things:
- Defining renewable as only truly clean sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal;
- And implementing policies that increase the production of these sources in state or require their utilities to sell electricity from these sources, not merely buy unbundled RECs to cleanwash their ongoing reliance on dirty energy.
Samantha Nelson is a summer communications intern at Food & Water Watch.