In the world of energy and climate change efforts, terminology is crucial. Although the right concepts catch the public eye and can become buzzwords that pave the way for corporate action and policy changes, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between or properly define the most common ones in use.
One example of this involves the term “carbon-free energy” and more specifically, “24/7 carbon-free energy.” As climate change efforts accelerate around the world, you may encounter more resources and business efforts that claim to be powered by carbon-free energy, whether 24/7 or on a more limited basis.
But what does this term actually mean, and how can you trust that organizations and corporations are doing their part to ensure a cleaner future?
In this post, we’ll take a deep dive into the world of 24/7 carbon-free energy. Additionally, we’ll describe the impact that carbon-free energy sources have on the environment, global compliance measures, and renewable energy initiatives.
What is 24/7 Carbon-Free Energy?
Carbon-free energy refers to systems that produce no carbon during energy creation. This includes generating assets like solar, wind, nuclear and large-scale hydroelectric power plants. This definition does not imply that there are no byproducts or waste associated with the energy production process, but simply that the energy produced and offsets associated with that generator are free of carbon dioxide emissions.
In the realm of carbon-free energy, a 24/7 carbon-free scenario means that every kilowatt-hour of electricity consumed is matched with carbon-free electricity sources both in terms of time and geography. This rule applies on a continuous cycle across all locations in which the energy is consumed.
What is 24/7 Hourly Matching?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 24/7 hourly matching refers to total decarbonization or “absolute zero” of energy consumption and production. This takes place when an organization is matching its purchasing of clean energy to its own hourly electricity consumption – through every hour of operation, every single day, across all locations.
The most simplistic outcome of 24/7 hourly matching is that an enterprise buys energy (such as electricity) from the same regional location – meaning the electricity grid region, not simply the same general area – where the consumption takes place. This involves knowing where on the grid energy is being used and consumed. The result is an optimization of energy procurement based on both location and time, which influences how quickly the “absolute zero” metric can be achieved.
Explainer: Benefits & Barriers of 24/7 Hourly Matching
Why Does 24/7 Carbon Free Energy Matter?
While attaining 24/7 carbon-free energy is a significant and very difficult ambition, measuring purchased electricity according to this hourly accounting methodology is key to setting up our collective journey towards a decarbonized grid. The 24/7 CFE ambition has the potential to alter the way that energy is produced, procured, and consumed, with ripple effects reaching far and wide.. This includes the existence of carbon-free energy in the environment itself, from a compliance standpoint, and when compared to other energy-saving initiatives.
The World Economic Forum establishes the importance of clean and carbon-free energy to the environment at large. The WEF states:“24/7 clean energy fixes the mismatches of power supply-demand, the associated grid congestion, and inherent CO2 emissions (notably by peak demand being covered by fossil sources, such as coal, oil and gas).”
While there are notable challenges and complexities to achieving this worthy goal, the environment (on a global scale) and communities living near power plants (from small towns to neighborhoods in New York City) are clear winners in the race to carbon-free energy. For example, reducing reliance on coal or natural gas-powered generation can deliver significant improvements to air quality for communities and cities alike, as well as reduce the power sector’s vulnerability to extreme weather events, which can force thermal power plants to shut down.
When hourly matching becomes the strategy, it’s possible to reduce or even curtail emissions during the “dirtiest” peak demand hours – when energy consumption is highest (i.e., late afternoon/early evening) and has been historically served by diesel or natural-gas fueled “peaking plants” that ramp up and inject power to meet needs and prevent brownouts. Until recent years,those needs could not be met by clean generation, but increasingly, especially in the southwestern United States, are being met by renewable energy and/or energy storage.
Some organizations and companies may choose to use the phrase “24/7 CFE” without gathering load-matching data or having it available for auditing and assurance purposes. While this may be seen as a way to improve the corporate brand and image publicly, doing so without the data to back it up may open these organizations up to claims of greenwashing.
Producing and proving a 24/7 carbon-free footprint requires more effort than basic outward measures. From a compliance standpoint, many states are beginning to enforce goals and percentages, with different rules for compliance.
As a result of policy changes, corporations and energy providers must stay on track by specific deadlines (usually years by which achieving a certain percentage of CFE or overall carbon footprint reduction is a mandate). Accurate, granular reporting makes transparency more feasible.
“Carbon-Free” Vs. Renewable Energy
In discussing 24/7 carbon-free energy, we cannot fail to mention the difference in terminology, which is important to the overall discussion and to forward progress. This is true especially in markets where some types of energy generation, like natural gas or nuclear power, are being phased out for alternatives.
McClean Energy makes the following distinction, which is important to understanding the big picture:“While all renewable energy is carbon-free, not all carbon-free energy is renewable. Only naturally-replenishing sources are renewable.”
In other words, renewable energy sources, like solar, wind, and geothermal, are naturally carbon-free, but some carbon-free sources are not inherently renewable. In forecasting the future of energy production and consumption, these nuances are critical for ensuring companies and utilities are working to meet the actual goal they have set.
Increasing Commitments to Carbon Free Energy
Many international corporations are setting the bar for powering their operations with carbon-free energy higher than others. For example, Google CEO Sundar Pichai has announced multiple initiatives to change the scope and process of carbon-free energy consumption. Google’s most recent announcements establish the corporate goal of achieving 24/7 CFE status by 2030.
Such ambitions are especially important when you consider how many large-scale data centers and corporate locations that Google and other corporate leaders have around the world. While the idea that humans need reliable energy sources to function in modern society is not new, the means by which we obtain and use that energy has to change, starting with the way society’s leading corporations write the script.
Fortunately, such commitments go beyond Google or even a handful of big-name companies. The United Nations 24/7 CFE Compact includes noteworthy brands, NGOs, governments and producers from around the world. These organizations all play a role in the chain, whether that includes creating, buying, supplying, or governing energy usage. There are currently 70+ signatories and partners on the CFE Compact, including:
- Government of Iceland
- Clean Air Task Force
The Impact of Hourly Carbon Accounting Software
Hourly carbon accounting software like Cleartrace’s platform enables proactive carbon measurement, management, and automation in accordance with the 24/7 methodology. With revamped processes, your organization can attain data leading to better environmental decisions.
A clearer outlook on your energy production and consumption and related carbon emissions also results in improved responses to new compliance measures and requirements.
Additionally, hourly carbon accounting software helps energy managers, risk management professionals, and ESG and sustainability teams identify gaps in CFE procurement as they reach and aim toward net zero goals and in some cases achieving a 24/7 CFE position. As a result, better energy and carbon data becomes an integral part of an organization’s collective journey.
Pursue a Cleaner Future with Cleartrace
In-depth knowledge of the terms associated with a cleaner future are important, but it’s a first step towards integrating those concepts into the work your organization or business performs every day.
Whether you’ve been tasked with specific energy action steps or are simply trying to get ahead of customer demands, internal net zero goals or regulatory requirements, now is the time to take action on carbon-free energy.