The Collegian
Tuesday, February 07, 2023

OPINION | Offsets From the Onset: How Not to Do Sustainability

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian. The Collegian made an exception to AP style and allowed the italicization of a word to emphasize the opinions expressed by the author.

The University of Richmond, like other campuses, places a great stake in offsets to achieve its sustainability goals.

In 2018, UR announced plans to offset its carbon emissions with a 20-megawatt solar array (which can generate electricity equivalent to that used by 5,000 households yearly) in Spotsylvania County, 50 miles from campus. UR’s solar project, known as Spider Solar, went live in December 2020. UR claimed that because of this project it became "the first institution of higher education in the southeast to match 100 percent of its electricity needs with solar energy." This may sound like a great advance toward achieving zero emissions as quickly as possible — at least until you look at the kind of project Spider Solar is.

Spider Solar is a key part of a larger, 500 MW solar facility operated by sPower. sPower is an affiliate of AES, a company that has perpetrated deadly acts of environmental racism. These acts have most notably taken place in Puerto Rico, where it exposed communities to toxic coal ash over the course of several years. Spotsylvania Solar occupies 6350 acres — a size normally only possible to imagine in regions of significantly lower biodiversity — epitomizing one legitimate claim against solar (that it destroys farmland) at the core of an otherwise selfish and misinformed campaign to halt solar development in one of the most solar-tenable states in the US.

To identify the root problem with offsets, it is necessary to consider the rudimentary economics behind them. Institutions such as UR demand offsets for the emissions they cannot eliminate. Providers supply those offsets until equilibrium is reached. If they are doing good work, an oversupply of offsets would not be a bad thing — at least until offsetting institutions feel the need to drive up the demand for the offsetters' sake. 

Anything can and will be leveraged for marketing value, but offsets by definition provide no other direct benefits to the purchaser. This means that the quality of offsets does not matter as long as they fulfill marketing objectives and so whenever the quality of offsets decreases even slightly, the marketing exceeds the true benefits — a phenomenon known as greenwashing.

But on a deeper level, an oversupply of offsets is a contradiction in terms. A key principle all offsets must adhere to is additionality: the idea that the offset project would not have happened without the offsetting institution's support. If a company builds a project on its own initiative and then markets it as an offset, how can it have happened with the purchaser's support?

In another case, an offsetter might supply an idea for a project and receive funds from the offsetting institution to implement it — like a loan that does not require repayment. But even then, if funds from any institution will do, no one institution can claim a project only happened through its support.

This scenario brings to light an absurdity particular to universities in this marketplace: In what world are businesses better equipped to provide ideas than universities, and universities better equipped to provide money than businesses? 

Clearly, the initiative (the idea, some funding, labor, community engagement) for any offset project must come from the offsetting institution itself — at which point we would no longer call it an offset. For UR, this might mean partnering with communities in the Richmond area to combat clear issues like urban heat and air pollution with solutions involving rooftop and other small-scale solar installations. Such an initiative might not correspond directly with UR's emissions numbers, but when UR inevitably markets it, it will be much more representative of real work by the UR community.

As for renewable energy, of course, our world needs a lot of it — and it's understandable to want to build as big as possible. But there are much better ways to do it. Parking lots, water bodies, abandoned mines and landfills can all support solar development, and pollinator meadows and sheep grazing can increase biodiversity between rows of panels. The places we can put solar panels are limited mainly by our imagination, and insofar as ground arrays are a necessity, the land underneath does not have to be worthless otherwise.

Successful energy transition will require creativity and initiative, traits of which UR and other universities are capable. There is no reason we should rely on others to think for us.