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Renewable Energy & Cleantech

What Does it Mean to be Carbon Neutral?

2015 was a watershed year for renewable energy.  For the first time, the growth of renewables in the US outpaced the growth of all other energy sources—including natural gas.  This growth, combined with the steady retirement of coal plants across the country, has kept US carbon emissions in check for the past 2 years.

The revolution is being led in large part by industry.  52% of the new wind power contracts signed last year was by businesses.  Organizations have also come out to support stronger renewable energy policy; more than 150 corporations have signed the White House’s American Business Act on Climate Pledge, publicly committing to become carbon neutral over the next 10-20 years.

Planet Bluegrass, the company behind the Telluride Bluegrass Festival—is one such carbon neutral company.  Read our Q&A below to learn more about how Planet Bluegrass achieves this claim with our help.

Q: What does it mean to be carbon neutral?  How do organizations like Planet Bluegrass, set, measure, and achieve this goal?

A: A carbon footprint is defined as the totality of an organization’s energy consumption (or activities) and the resulting emissions from that consumption.  Emissions are calculated by applying emissions factors to each activity.  An emission factor is based on the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of each type of activity.  So, for example, burning natural gas in your fireplace is one type of activity, and there is an emissions factor associated with natural gas.  GWPs vary widely based on the type of emission; when calculating a carbon footprint, all GWPs are converted to carbon dioxide equivalent in order to have an apples-to-apples comparison across all activity and emission factor types.

In order to become carbon neutral, an organization must first measure its carbon footprint by gathering data on all its activities.  Once it has this information and is able to apply emission factors to determine the total size of its emissions, the company can then set reduction goals.  These goals can be based on reducing consumption, or they can be based on using low-carbon equivalents.

Most companies address their carbon footprint in both ways.  It can be difficult—even impossible—for a company to reduce their energy consumption enough to get to zero emissions.  As a result, almost all companies that are serious about becoming carbon neutral rely on a variety of low-carbon equivalencies such as Energy Attribution Certificates (EACs) and carbon offsets.

Each year, Planet Bluegrass measures and mitigates its carbon footprint for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.  The activities that make up the bulk of Telluride’s emissions are travel-related, but there are also emissions from event and office electricity usage, event lodging, event vendors, event shuttles, even the waste generated by the event.  Planet Bluegrass utilizes carbon-free EACs in the form of renewable energy certificates and locally-sourced landfill gas offsets to counterbalance the emissions from the event and to remain carbon neutral.

Q: How can Planet Bluegrass be sure it is achieving carbon neutrality?

A: There are many tools available to organizations to help them calculate their carbon footprint and measure mitigation.  One of these is the GHG Protocol which is the accepted global standard for carbon footprinting.  When Telluride’s footprint is calculated by Renewable Choice partner Anthesis Mosaic—a recognized leader in this type of work—the team of analysts uses the process outlined in the GHG Protocol.  When mitigating the footprint, Renewable Choice use only third-party verified low-carbon equivalents to ensure that these tools are doing what they say they are doing.

Q: Isn’t it really complicated to do a carbon footprint for an event like Telluride?

A: It can be. This is why Planet Bluegrass and thousands of other organizations rely on expertise from their partners to help.  One of the complicated factors is that most carbon footprints utilize certain assumptions and extrapolations; they are, in effect, a best guess.  For example, one assumption that Planet Bluegrass has to consider is the emissions that are avoided by the festival.  While participants are in Telluride, they aren’t at home driving to work, using their home electricity, etc.  How these avoided emissions impact Telluride’s carbon footprint is under ongoing review.

Q: What are low-carbon equivalents, and how do they work?

A: Low-carbon equivalents, sometimes called clean technologies, are the way that any entity—a festival, an organization, a homeowner, even a utility—can address its unavoidable emissions.  They come from a variety of project types: wind, solar, geothermal, hydro/tidal, biomass/biogas, landfills, farms/agriculture, forestry, and fuel switching are among the most common.

EACs are used to lower the emissions associated with purchased electricity.  They are produced by renewable electricity projects at the same time that the electricity is generated.  For electricity to be considered “green,” it must be bundled with its EACs.  EACs are also sold onto the free market and can be purchased by organizations like Planet Bluegrass to mitigate the emissions from its own grid-sourced electricity use.

Carbon offsets are used to counterbalance the emissions from sources other than electricity, such as jet fuel or gasoline.  The offsets are produced by projects like new growth forests or landfill methane capture and represent emissions that have been avoided (either not allowed to enter the atmosphere or eliminated/sequestered from the atmosphere).  Like EACs, offsets are purchased by Planet Bluegrass to mitigate the emissions from sources like travel.

Whenever possible, Planet Bluegrass purchases its offsets locally, which gives the project financial support.  Offsets are also considered to be additional, meaning that they actively replace emissions from dirty fuel sources and have a powerful impact on our global carbon footprint.

Q: Why is Planet Bluegrass carbon neutral?

A: To date, there has been no US mandate for a cap on emissions—although we’re getting there with the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Climate Agreement.  Much of the growth in carbon mitigation has been driven by voluntary buyers like Planet Bluegrass, companies that care about protecting natural resources, improving human health, and creating a viable, competitive economic market for low-carbon alternatives.  A commitment to responsibility is baked into the DNA of Planet Bluegrass, which became a certified B Corporation in 2015.