Efficiency’s Role in Carbon Cap-and-Trade

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By Elisa Wood

August 28, 2008

We hear a lot about how efficiency will play an increasingly important role as the United States undertakes efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But how does that play out in a practical sense under cap-and-trade programs?

The Offset Quality Initiative provides insight in a new white paper on greenhouse gas offsets: http://www.pewclimate.org/docUploads/OQI-Ensuring-Offset-Quality-white-paper.pdf

A cap-and-trade program, like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), caps emissions at a certain level in a geographic location, and then lets players use various trading mechanisms to operate within the cap. See Lisa Cohn’s blog in August 21 issue of Energy Efficiency Markets: http://energyefficiencymarkets.wordpress.com/2008/08/21/eastern-states-ready-for-big-ee-boost/

One of those mechanisms is an offset, which acts as a counterbalance to reduce overall greenhouse gases. More specifically, an offset represents emissions reduced at one site to make up for emissions produced elsewhere.

Offsets can be bought and sold in the form of credits. A commercial building owner might install efficiency improvements that reduce the amount of carbon dioxide the building produces. The owner then translates the emissions reductions into offsets under standards set by the cap-and-trade program. A power plant might buy the offsets to ‘reduce’ its emissions. The plant does not actually cut back on what it emits, but instead piggybacks on the building’s reductions. Overall emissions fall, so the cap-and-trade program achieves its goal.

RGGI, the nation’s first cap-and-trade program set to take effect next year in ten states, allows certain efficiency measures to qualify as offsets.

The program accepts offsets from efficiency measures that reduce or avoid carbon dioxide emissions created by natural gas, oil or propane in commercial or residential buildings. The building owner might improve equipment and systems for heat and hot water, install energy management systems, improve the building envelope or engage in certain other activities. (See RGGI’s model rule, page 132-145, http://www.rggi.org/modelrule.htm.)

Of course, offsets are just one way efficiency markets benefit from today’s focus on reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Even where no cap-and-trade programs exist, policymakers see energy efficiency as a key way to address climate change. The fewer electrons we use, the less power plants run; the less they run, the lower our emissions are. Thus, many cities and states are increasingly focused on larger policies and incentives that encourage businesses and homeowners to undertake efficiency measures.

Programs like RGGI help spur such thinking. Expect growing talk nationally about energy efficiency and its importance in the coming weeks as RGGI makes the news with its first market auction September 25.

Visit energy writer Elisa Wood at www.realenergywriters.com and subscribe to her free EE Markets newsletter and podcast.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of MicrogridKnowledge.com. She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. Bill Burtis says:

    Your building owner can install non-electric efficiency and sell the credits, as you mention (other fuels) but electric efficiency credits sold to a “power plant operator” would essentially be double counted. In a market like RGGI, capping emissions from electric generation, EE from electricity produces no credits not accruing to the generator, yes? “The fewer electrons we use, the less power plants run; the less they run, the lower our emissions are.” It’s not our emissions that are lower, it’s the generator’s emissions that are lower.

  2. thank you so much.