Choosing the Right Path: 24/7 Carbon-Free Energy vs Emissions First

In the evolving landscape of energy sustainability, corporate energy buyers face a pivotal choice when moving beyond 100% Renewable Energy through the use of Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), bundled or unbundled with physically delivered power, to a more advanced clean energy and decarbonization strategy: embrace 24/7 Carbon-Free Energy (CFE) or prioritize an Emissions First approach. Energy suppliers have the unique challenge of developing products and renewable energy projects to meet the demands of more advanced corporate energy procurement strategies. Each strategy has distinct advantages, challenges, and implications for sustainability goals. 

Understanding the Controversy

The debate over 24/7 CFE and Emissions First can get contentious as organizations strive to meet aggressive sustainability targets – despite clean energy procurement budgets being scrutinized considering macroeconomic pressures. Both strategies aim to reduce carbon footprints but differ fundamentally in approach and execution. Both offer the benefit of robust and advanced green claims and notably more so than the legacy default of reaching 100% renewable energy, a claim which currently has been under the microscope and accused of being greenwashing when corporates are just matching annual energy consumption to unbundled RECs. This dichotomy between approaches and evolution of clean energy procurement strategies has sparked lively discussions about which path offers the most effective and sustainable results.

Cleartrace’s Perspective

At Cleartrace, we recognize the value in both 24/7 CFE and Emissions First strategies and support customers who endeavor for either approach. Any organization who pursues one of these strategies is by definition a leader and going above and beyond what is today a voluntary market.  Our technology supports granular data tracking, enabling organizations to make informed decisions aligned with their unique sustainability goals. We believe in providing the tools and insights needed to navigate this decarbonization dilemma effectively. We are in favor of both approaches and a number of approaches in between and meet our customers where they are on their unique decarbonization journey. We also recognize that getting to 24/7 CFE for 100% of operations or ensuring all clean energy investments meet Emissions First criteria is challenging with current market constraints – having targets and working towards them, even when you don’t get all the way to 100% is essential in the race to net zero.

What is 24/7 Carbon-Free Energy (CFE)?

24/7 CFE involves matching energy consumption with carbon-free energy sources every hour of the day. This approach ensures continuous use of clean energy, typically requiring local generation and possibly additional investments. High-profile commitments from companies and government entities like Google, who led the charge in 24/7 CFE when releasing its white paper on the topic in September 2020,  Iron Mountain, and the United States (US) Federal government underscore its growing adoption. Emerging drivers, such as the proposed green hydrogen 45V tax credits, represent potential catalysts for 24/7 CFE’s potential here in the US.

However, achieving 24/7 CFE can be challenging, particularly if an entity operates in a regulated market for power, and can entail significant costs or limited options for ensuring round the clock carbon free energy. Yet, for organizations prioritizing local clean energy consumption and willing to invest, it represents a robust commitment to sustainability in the communities where they operate – which should be celebrated.

If your organization has small load profiles (such as retail) and is geographically distributed, then 24/7 CFE may not be realistic for your organization because load volume often influences options that are available. 

What is Emissions First?

Emissions First focuses on reducing carbon emissions by investing in clean energy projects on the dirtiest grids, irrespective of their location. This approach maximizes carbon impact, often at a lower cost relative to 24/7 CFE, by targeting areas where clean energy can displace the most carbon-intensive power. Companies like Amazon, GM, Salesforce, and Meta are leading the charge with this strategy.

Emissions First is advantageous for its potential to generate significant carbon reductions globally, without the necessity of increasing local clean energy supply. It offers a pragmatic and cost-effective alternative for organizations looking to make a substantial environmental impact. However, for corporate buyers investing in cleaning up dirtier grids, this approach does not always help to secure long term direct physical supply for their operations.

Comparing the Approaches

Choosing between 24/7 CFE and Emissions First is not a binary decision. Both strategies are more advanced than merely committing to 100% renewable energy and require sophisticated data streams and more complex, granular carbon accounting. Factors influencing the choice include:

  • Operational Type: Data centers and other high energy load operations may benefit more from 24/7 CFE and securing enough generation to meet demand in tandem with the carbon benefits, while other operations might lean towards Emissions First as an inclusive approach that increases marginal carbon avoidance while simultaneously meeting social and environmental justice ambitions by cleaning up dirtier grids.
  • Geography: Local energy market conditions can dictate the feasibility and effectiveness of each approach.
  • ESG Ambitions: Aligning with overarching environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals is crucial in decision-making. Near- and long- term net zero targets and social ambitions may drive a company to lean towards one approach over the other. 
  • Availability: Access to additional renewable energy projects coming online and power purchase agreements (PPAs) and virtual PPAs (vPPAs) as well as access to granular data such as hourly RECs and market options can drive strategy selection.

A Hybrid Strategy: Best of Both Worlds

Organizations don’t need to choose exclusively between 24/7 CFE and Emissions First. A hybrid strategy can leverage the strengths of both approaches. For instance, committing to 24/7 CFE for data centers while investing in Emissions First projects for other operations can optimize carbon impact and sustainability outcomes. The US federal government’s goal of achieving 50% of clean energy through 24/7 clean energy by 2030 is a testament to the feasibility of such blended strategies.

Overcoming Hurdles

Implementing these strategies involves navigating market constraints, budget considerations, and data availability challenges. Cleartrace provides a robust platform for tracking and verifying energy data, ensuring transparency and accuracy in carbon accounting. By locking in 24/7 clean energy supply, organizations can hedge against future energy price volatility, securing long-term clean energy access. Working with trusted energy advisors and suppliers is important in structuring deals that align to your ESG targets.

The Path Forward

Adopting advanced clean energy strategies goes beyond merely achieving 100% renewable energy. It positions organizations as leaders in sustainability, aligning procurement practices with long-term ESG goals and securing clean energy access. Emerging factors, such as 45V tax incentives and the push for green hydrogen, further bolster the case for these sophisticated approaches.


Navigating the decarbonization dilemma isn’t about choosing between 24/7 CFE and Emissions First—it’s about leveraging both to maximize impact. Going beyond 100% renewable energy is strategic, offering procurement advantages and bolstering sustainability credentials. At Cleartrace, we empower organizations to lead in this space, providing the data and insights needed to make informed, impactful decisions.