Cover Story: Professor of Green
Part 3: Drexel University Relies On RECs As Part Of Energy Strategy
Drexel University Relies On RECs As Part Of Energy Strategy
By Greg Zimmerman, Executive Editor - September 2012 - Green
One of the things that Francis says drives him crazy is getting bogged down in tangential arguments — i.e., missing the forest for the trees. "The challenge is to stay focused on the mission, and not get distracted by secondary issues," he says. So to Francis, arguments about which rating system is "better" are irrelevant. Green Globes was Drexel University's choice because it was "the road less traveled, but we arrive at the same destination just as efficiently."
Purchasing RECs is another strategy that comes under a fair amount of scrutiny. But that scrutiny is unwarranted, says Francis, and another example of secondary arguments distracting from what's important.
"I strongly believe that a metric ton of carbon reduced anywhere is one less metric ton of carbon in the atmosphere," says Francis. "It's clearly a viable option. The argument over source is secondary."
While skeptics claim that RECs are an unjustifiable, green-for-the-sake-of-green expense, Francis says that buying RECs is actually the most cost-effective way for Drexel to meet its carbon reduction goals.
"We're in an urban environment, so we don't have enough roof for photovoltaics," he says. "And it's not practical to put up three megawatts of windmills on a building in downtown Philadelphia. There's the place where angels wander around thinking, and there's a place where the iguanas wander around doing." Francis sees his team and his university as the iguanas.
"One of the things I love about this university is that we're very action-oriented," he says.
Beginning in January 2011, Drexel began buying 100 percent of its electrical energy use from wind RECs. As of July 2012, the university's 84,268,000 kWh annual purchase is 6th most in the country among colleges and universities in terms of volume of RECs purchased (and 2nd in wind power RECs). Drexel is also just outside the top 50 of all types of organizations. (Intel Corp. is No. 1, having purchased 2,798,660,169 kWh of RECs, according to EPA statistics.)
Another factor that makes the cost of buying all the university's electricity in wind RECs reasonable, says Francis, is that the cost has come down significantly in the last several years. When Francis first started at the university in 2007, it was buying about 10 percent of its electricity in RECs. Now, as it buys 100 percent, Francis says the total spend isn't that much greater now that it was then.
RECs In Effect
Numbers from the Department of Energy back him up. In January 2008, the national average cost per MWh for a wind REC was about $5.50. In May 2012, the cost was down to just under $1 per MWh.
So buying the wind RECs has meant that the campus is now 81 percent of the way to its goal of carbon neutrality. The piece that remains primarily comes from airplane travel, as Drexel, under the leadership of President John Fry, increasingly works to expand to become a global research institute. (One of its three satellite campuses — a Center for Graduate Studies — is located in Sacramento, Calif.) Francis says the next step is to work to reduce the remaining Scope 3 emissions — Scope 3 emissions are, essentially, the "miscellaneous" category in the three-tier greenhouse gas emissions classification system. Right now, it's too cost-prohibitive to buy offsets for the Scope 3 emissions. Good progress, however, is that more than 85 percent of teachers and students get to campus via bicycle or public transportation, says Francis.