An edited version of this appears on the USGBC National website.
LEED certified buildings have been helping California meet AB 32 Scoping Plan targets of reducing GHG emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 primarily through energy efficiency improvements of an average of 27% above the reference code. Beginning in 2013 with LEED v4, Green-e certified renewable power purchases, RECs and offsets could qualify for up to two points toward LEED certification. LEED v4.1 allows for up to five points.
The availability of renewable power continues to grow. Since 1993, solar PV generation in California has ballooned from 4 GWh hours to 24,720 GWh in 2018. Investor-owned utilities (IOUs) and consumer choice aggregators (CCAs) now offer Green-e certified energy products with 50% and 100% renewable energy content to their customers.
For many LEED certifiers, the primary benefit of green power purchases are increased flexibility for the final points necessary to meet certification requirements. However, local communities also benefit from air quality improvements. In many cases, renewable generation facilities are located within regional airsheds, improving local air quality while enabling buildings to meet GHG reduction targets. CCAs provide benefits that are even more localized, sourcing power within, or adjacent to, the communities they serve.
On-site generation of electricity can also be used to achieve LEED points, but upfront installation costs can be prohibitive. In many cases on-site generation will be insufficient to cover all the electricity needs of the building. A green power purchase may be a more cost-effective option, or one that can be coupled with on-site generation. Recent price increases in RECs have made them expensive relative to on site generation, but these trends may be temporary. Cost effectiveness studies for LEED 4.1 are not yet available, but future studies will help certifiers make informed decisions for reduction strategies.
How Do I know That the Power I Buy Is Actually Renewable?
Green-e is the standard U.S. certification for renewable energy products in the voluntary market, ensuring the highest quality renewable resources with minimal environmental impact and chain of custody from generation to retirement. Green rated programs from utilities with more than 100,000 customers (IOUs like SCE and PG&E) are required to be Green-e certified through SB 43. CCAs also provide Green-e certified options.
In 2019, electricity and natural gas use in residential and commercial buildings, along with emissions from electricity generation and imports, accounted for 24.6% of California’s total GHG emissions. Renewable energy in LEED certification helps building managers make market decisions to meet long-term state goals of zero net energy. As more communities pass reach codes, increasing local requirements for electrification of space heating, water heating and other appliances, renewable energy purchases will become an even more straightforward way to reduce emissions in buildings. Green energy is currently widely available and affordable. The cost of 100% renewable options will become even more comparable to base load energy in 2022.
Municipalities are increasingly passing reach codes that require buildings to be electric-ready or fully electric. They are also imposing natural gas bans on new construction. Regional agencies like the South Coast Air Quality Management District that have been in severe non-attainment for ground level ozone are considering stringent NOx standards in their 2022 Air Quality Management Plans which would limit indoor natural gas use for in space heating, water heating or appliances.
At the state level, the CPUC’s California Energy Efficient Strategic Plan has set ambitious zero net energy goals for residential and commercial buildings. Electrification will help such buildings realize long term GHG savings, as RPS increases carbon free sources in California’s grid to 100% by 2045. Fully electrified buildings will be well positioned to benefit from increases in grid renewables, then phase out their green energy purchases over time.
LEED Green-e purchases introduce building managers to cost effective carbon reduction options. LEED points for renewable energy purchases incentivize the conversion to electric appliances, while further moving California toward compliance with zero net energy and air pollution attainment goals. The future in California is most definitely electric.
 LEED v4 Green Power and Carbon Offsets. https://www.usgbc.org/credits/new-construction-schools-new-construction-retail-new-construction-healthcare-data-centers–1?return=/credits
 Green-e certification in the U.S., Europe, and South American have equivalents to Green-e certification.
 Includes generation and net imports. California Electrical Energy Generation – 1983 through 2000. Available at: https://www.energy.ca.gov/data-reports/energy-almanac/california-electricity-data/california-electrical-energy-generation-0
 According to NREL, the price of RECs went up from $1.50/MWh to $6.60/MWh from December 2020 to August 2021. https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy22osti/81141.pdf
 Senate Bill 43. https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201320140SB43
 CARB 2019 GHG Inventory. Figure 4. https://ww3.arb.ca.gov/cc/inventory/pubs/reports/2000_2019/ghg_inventory_trends_00-19.pdf
 List of municipalities available at Building Decarbonization Coalition. https://www.buildingdecarb.org/uploads/3/0/7/3/30734489/activecodematrix9-23.pdf