Green Power Purchasing Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
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What are the “environmental benefits” or “attributes” associated with RECs and GOs?

Short answer

There’s little consistency in the definitions of what the terms “benefit” or “attribute” are in the context of RECs and GOs (see What is a REC or a GO?). Yet, evidence clearly shows that the voluntary market for these certificates does not result in any environmental benefit. These certificates only serve as a record that a unit amount of electricity was generated from a qualified renewable energy resource (typically grid-connected) for the purpose of electric utility compliance tracking for renewable energy regulatory quotas (i.e., RPS or clean energy standard).

Long explanation

RECs and GOs typically claim to be or represent “environmental benefits.” The same concept of benefits is alternatively referred to by some as “environmental attributes.” In the context of environmental accounting and reporting, the meaning of this term is ambiguous and misleading. For carbon offset projects, GHG benefits are clearly defined. For an offset credit, the benefit is a substantiated assertion of a quantified reduction in GHG emissions that were caused by the offset credit market’s intervention.[1]

RECs and GOs do record that electricity from RE resources was generated. But, they do not substantiate nor represent, in any way, that the REC or GO market had any influence on whether this renewable energy was generated or that any emissions were reduced as a consequence. For instance, RECs are denoted in MWh and not in tons of a specific GHG or other pollutants. In contrast, we have clear evidence[2] proving that the voluntary market for RECs and GOs do not influence renewable energy generation or investment, and therefore neither the REC nor GO market create any GHG or other environmental benefits. A certificate cannot represent something that does not exist.[3] [4] Separately, simply labeling a financial payment as a purchase of “attributes” does not make it a credible instrument for allocating indirect emissions for attributional GHG accounting.


[1] i.e., the intervention is in the form of an offset credit price signal to project developers.

[2] For literature on the topic, visit: https://www.bccas.business-school.ed.ac.uk/impact-and-collaboration/renewable-energy-purchasing/.

[3] Gillenwater, M. (2008). Redefining RECs (Part 1): Untangling attributes and offsets. Energy Policy.

[4] Gillenwater, M. (2008). Redefining RECs (Part 2): Untangling certificates and emission markets. Energy Policy.