Smug about your solar roof? Not so fast.

solar roofIf you’ve installed solar panels on your roof and feel aglow with environmental virtue, you may be in for a rude awakening. There’s a good chance someone else has purchased your halo and is wearing it right now.

In most states (including California), rooftop solar panels earn Renewable Energy Certificates, which quantify how much clean electricity they produce. But if panels are leased or installed under a power purchase agreement, it’s the “third-party owner” — not the homeowner — who gets those certificates. Most then turn around and sell the RECs, a process that magically turns brown electrons green.

Here’s how it works: Joe’s Solar puts panels on your roof that produce 7,500 kilowatt-hours a year, and Joe sells you the electricity under a power purchase agreement. Because Joe still owns the panels, he gets credit — in the form of RECs — for that renewable electricity. Meanwhile, Bob’s all-fossil utility wants to “green up” so it buys RECs from Joe. That allows Bob to relabel 7,500 kilowatt-hours of his coal- or gas-fired power generation as “renewable energy.”

It may sound strange, but a market to sell or trade RECs can be extremely useful. California, for instance, has a mandate for its utilities to generate 33% renewable power by 2020, but some parts of the state have little sun or wind resources. Still, utilities in sunny or windy spots can produce more than their requirement and then sell the extra RECs to areas where it would be much more costly, or impossible, to hit the target. Thus, the RECs market allows a utility in one region to finance additional green energy production in another where it is cheaper, supporting more carbon reduction at a lower cost to consumers.

That seems sensible enough. But something’s wrong if the buying and selling utility companies both claim that green power as their own. And that’s essentially what’s been going on with solar rooftops.

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