Today, I'm talking with Paul Needham and Ricky Buch from Positive Capital Partners. EnAccess is one of the funders of a project they are working on, together with South Pole, called the D-REC Initiative.
The D-REC, or Distributed Renewable Energy Certificate is being created to solve a problem that will have a direct benefit for Energy Access project developers and for corporates who want the biggest return on their investment in renewable energy in terms of climate impact.
In a place like California, a homeowner who installs solar panels on their house can actually sell the renewable energy that those panels create, creating a way to make money. There is no equivalent to this for DRE developers working in off grid locations, which basically means the energy access industry hasn’t yet been able to tap into the already-existing demand for renewable energy attributes. And on the other side, corporates haven’t had the chance to make the kind of climate impact that they could be making, if they were to have a certifiable way of investing into distributed renewable energy. This is where we need the D-REC: an open source, internationally accepted market instrument which can validate, and put a real monetary value on the environmental benefit provided by DRE systems.
In this conversation, Paul and Ricky talk about how they got this Initiative off the ground and why Open Source is so important for its' success.
D-RECs on GitHub
Energy Web Foundation Origin
EnAccess blog post
EnAccess was the first to step in with funding for this project from, and we are really happy to currently be joined by the Shell Foundation, Good Energies Foundation, Signify Foundation, GIZ-DeveloPPP, the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), UNDP, the IFC, and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).
Hi, my name is Tamara Mahoney, and this is the Open Energy Access podcast from The EnAccess Foundation. This is the show where we focus on what's happening in the energy access sector; we talk development, innovation and open source ideas. I started this podcast to share very real, practical and useful lessons from the real people within our sector, and just to talk about what people are working on. So today I'm joined by Paul Needham and Ricky Buch from Positive Capital Partners. Now, EnAccess is one of the funders of a project that they are working on together with South Pole called the D-REC Initiative. To introduce the D-REC Initiative, first let's talk renewable energy. There is already a large market for renewable energy and it's corporations and utility companies that are the main buyers of renewable energy in a developed market, such as the US. But what doesn't yet exist is a way for those corporations or large companies to invest in Distributed Renewable Energy. And the Distributed Renewable Energy Certificate, or the D-REC, is a solution for that very problem.
If there was a way to certify and value the energy being produced by, let's say a mini grid company operating in an off-grid environment, we might see a lot more investment coming into energy access. So this is going to be kind of what we're covering today in this conversation. And this topic is really useful for absolutely everyone who is currently working in energy access to understand. I would also invite climate investors and corporate sustainability leaders to hear how they can also benefit from the D-REC initiative. The EnAccess Foundation is not the only funder behind this project. We are very happy to be joined by the Shell Foundation, the Good Energies Foundation, the Signify Foundation, the German Corporation for International Cooperation, The UKs Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, the UNDP, the IFC, and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. So there's a lot to talk about today, let's just get right into the conversation. I started by asking Ricky and Paul to introduce themselves and to tell us a bit about their background and how they ended up working together on the D-REC initiative. Ricky and Paul. Thanks for joining me today on open energy access. Paul, why don't you go ahead and introduce yourself?
Well, Tamara, thanks so much for having us on the podcast today. So I'm Paul Needham. I've been working in the off-grid energy space for maybe 10 or 12 years. I co-founded a company in India called Sympa Networks, which was one of the world's first pay as you go Solar companies. I lived in India for five years, helped build that company. And we sold that to Engie. One of the really important actor in the off-grid distributed renewable energy space. And since then I've continued to work and I've really zeroed in on this problem of mobilizing finance into the acceleration of the energy transition in emerging markets prior to co-founding symphony networks. I was at Microsoft. And prior to that, I had an internet advertising company, a tech company, a tech platform that we that we built and sold. My academic background is in development economics. So I've long been interested in the problems of accelerating economic development in developing and emerging markets. So, Ricky and I got together with our colleague, Nick Fedorkiw have formed Positive Capital Partners and we are one organization that is co-leading the D-REC initiative. We're co-leading it together with South Pole, South Pole Carbon Asset management group. Looking forward to telling you more about what we're working on and the problems we're trying to solve here, I'll hand it over to Ricky.
Ricky, why don't you introduce yourself? Tell us a little bit about where you come from, how you met Paul and what you're working on now.
So my name is Ricky Bush. I grew up just outside San Francisco. My academic background is actually in computer engineering. I worked at Microsoft for a few years, decided I wanted to change. And so I went to grad school and that's actually, when I was first exposed to the energy access sector, I was actually working on a grad school project that was looking at maternal health outcomes in emerging markets. And the biggest problem we actually saw was a lack of power that women would, would travel for kilometers days, even to these public health facilities to receive an ultrasound. And you know, they would unfortunately have to wait days more because there was simply was no power for the machines. That was my first exposure, really to this issue around energy poverty. And after that, I worked at General Electric for many years.
My last role at GE was actually helping lead a small team that was focused on the energy access space. We developed solar hybrid micro grids, essentially power plants in a box. Unfortunately GE decided to go in a slightly different direction. And so I changed paths did a bit of consulting for SMAP and specifically the global facility from minigrids. And it was then that I actually reconnected with Paul who I think during my time at GE, I was trying to just learn from industry experts on what works well in the energy access space. As I was trying to convince GEs management, that this was a problem that needed to be tackled. And so I reached out to Paul and Paul was gracious with his time and we chatted and stayed in touch. And then after I had left GE and wanted to continue to work in the energy access space he and I reconnected. And then we brought in our, our third colleague, Nick, and that's really where we're Positive Capital was formed in, in sort of a shared mission and objective in addressing this problem.
The idea came first, right for the D-REC initiative and then Positive Capital Partners was formed as a result of that idea, or how did that originate?
It's often hard to trace where ideas come from. I think each of us were coming out the problem from different perspectives. When I was at sympa, we had invented a, a pay as you go solar panel where IOT technology was integrated into the back of the solar panel. And we could remotely turn on and off the panel and monitor the energy generation. And at the time I was thinking, you know, we've developed this fancy technology to enable finance, so we could offer a solar equipment on finance or on a pay-as-you-go basis to customers, but we're also collecting this really valuable data about how much energy is being generated and, and, you know, who might value that data. And Nick Fedorkiw as well had been working in, in sort of big wind industry. And, you know, we, we started talking about corporate power purchase agreements and these new corporate sustainability targets and as you've been tracking this, I mean, the momentum behind this movement is, is really growing.
There are now 350 companies that have committed to power their business with a hundred percent renewable electricity. So we saw this, this massive and growing demand from the private sector for renewable energy and for renewable energy attributes. They want to be involved in building and deploying new renewables. And on the other hand, you've got the off-grid energy space that is selling electrons and energy services to low income people in low resource communities. But that whole sector has been unable to effectively monetize the environmental attributes. So, you know, we thought, okay, how do we connect these two? How do we help corporates? And the private sector achieve their climate targets, but also help DRE project developers monetize the good work that they're doing monetize the environmental attributes that there, that those projects are generating. And our first thought was okay, as a private company, we could solve that problem, but it only took a handful of conversations with corporates to discover that no what's needed is a global standard.
Any one company can't solve this, this isn't something that, you know, one party could create because it wouldn't be adopted the buyers of, of renewable energy attributes, just like the buyers of, of carbon credits. They need to work under an internationally accepted standard. So we realized that, okay, we need to create a market. We're not just trying to build a business here. We're trying to create a market. And, and there were a few things that are needed. There's an instrument, there's a technology platform. There's a lot of market development work that needs to happen. So we were speaking with the shell foundation and they had been thinking a lot about this problem as well. And they introduced us to south pole who had done a similar project around carbon. And so the parties came together and we started to think, okay, how could we actually mobilize the whole sector and create something that's open source that's available for all to use that many different companies could take advantage of and could live well beyond the ambitions of, and be much bigger than the ambitions of any one company. And that was really the spark for the idea of the D-REC Initiative.
No small task, you know, just to create a new, global standard. Yeah - it sounds, sounds easy. Why don't you, I'm not sure which one of you wants to take this question. Tell me how one gets started creating a new global standard for something like this, because it's so big that it's really hard to get your mind around it. So how does one get started with something like this?
Yeah, it is big. And the first step was to involve multiple people from different organizations and types of stakeholders in some kind of consultation process, just to figure out what the boundaries are of a project like this. What's, what's in scope, what's out of scope, what needs to be managed through a multi-stakeholder process and which pieces could certain organizations take that helped us kind of define the problem in terms of various work streams. So we settled in on five major work streams. There is a kind of a market development work stream. That's really around advocacy working with potential buyers. So corporate climate investors, and there's a work stream around the standards organizations. We don't really want to create an entirely new standard that's disconnected from existing standards. We want to create an on-ramp to existing standards. So small DRE projects can easily get I-REC certification, for example.
So there's a work stream around standards and engaging with the different international standards organizations like Iraq, gold standard Vera and others. The third work stream is really around the technology. What sort of open source technology platform do we need to lower the transaction costs for for multiple small projects to get their energy generation data certified and verified in some sort of semi-automated way. The next work stream is really around finance. How could an instrument like this mobilize new finance? How could it help not just generate a new revenue stream for project developers, but help them go to the bank and say, can I borrow to build this project because I've got this guaranteed revenue stream from the sale. So there's all that financing innovation. And on that one, by the way, we're partnering with the IFC. Then the fifth, if I've counted correctly, the fifth work stream is really around piloting and putting all that into practice. And Ricky, if you're back with us, why don't I hand it to you to talk about the different kinds of pilots that we're doing?
Thanks. So we've we've decided to build our pilot strategy around proving a couple of different concepts. The first is really a technical proof of concept which is as we build out the D-REC platform, which is really focused around automating how we issue certificates against generation data, our goal there is to really show how we can automate the process of collecting information from a variety of different DREassets including solar home systems and many grids process that information in near real time, and then issue certificates against the data that we've collected. And so that's really our first goal with a POC is to show that we can do this one in a scalable fashion to how we can collect information from disparate devices, scattered across the globe, and to do it in a streamlined and transparent way. The next pilot, we have really builds on top of that but focuses on a particular application.
So we have the great opportunity to work with the UN Development program and specifically the climate aggregation platform team there that is focused on electrifying health facilities in Africa. Clearly, you know, that they have been able to amass a series of funds that are used to pay for the CapEx part of the program, but there is a need for ongoing operations and maintenance and to support the systems on an ongoing basis. And that's really where they look to the D-REC initiative to come in and offer a solution. And that's where we're looking to partner with them and figure out, can we monetize the D-RECs from these health facilities? And in the last pilot, again, sort of builds collectively on both of those two prior ones what we're calling the commercial pilot, which is really around catalyzing new funds for projects to go in the ground. So the, the prior to the first, the proof of concept was really around collecting data from operational systems. The next one was really around using the directs to offset the op ex costs. And the last pilot is really around mobilizing new capital, but new projects in the ground, and then generate directs from that and find corporate off-takers for that. So it's really a progression that we see, and I think really speaks to potentially how flexible the D-REC instrument can be in mobilizing new sources of capital for project development.
When I talk about the D-REC initiative to people, kind of in my more immediate world, I talk a lot with SHS companies with mini grid companies with energy access practitioners who want to know how they can be involved. And when I hear, how can I be involved? I'm kind of hearing well, how can I benefit from this? What's the answer for, for these energy access practitioners?
You know, having worked in the space for a decade, I know that there are many challenges to mobilizing finance. These companies are offering energy services to consumers or small businesses, but the companies themselves need to invest in the equipment upfront. And that's a challenge mobilizing the finance to do that. Often these companies need to borrow money from abroad, from overseas in, in hard currency, and yet their customers are paying them in local currency. So they're exposed to this, this a foreign exchange risk. There's also the problem of, you know, for an investor, how do they aggregate a large, each of these projects can be quite small. So how do they aggregate a large number of small projects? This D-REC initiative is aiming to solve many of these problems for a specific project developer. What could we, what could this instrument do for them? Well, number one, it could help monetize, help bring them a new revenue stream in short.
So not only are you selling electricity to consumers and small businesses in the villages where you're operating, you're now able to sell, you will soon be able to sell your environmental attributes, your D-RECs into a global market, which could be, you know, fortune 500 companies that are trying to meet their net zero targets. And they need to invest in more renewable energy projects in order to reduce their scope two emissions or through their supply chain partners reduced their scope three emissions. So number one, new revenue stream, don't just sell electrons, sell and get paid for the environmental good that you're doing as well by selling the environmental attributes. Second is that that new revenue stream comes in a hard currency. It doesn't matter what happens with the exchange rate between your local currency and the US dollar that the D-RECs will be priced in and paid for in a hard currency Euros or US dollars.
For example, that really helps de-risk the projects that you're doing from the perspective of your investors who may be investing in hard currencies alongside that. Also we expect that, that this instrument will allow companies to come up that will agree in advance to purchase all of the directs from your project, even before you build it. And with that contract in hand, that will help you go to a bank and say, yep, I have two revenue streams. My customers will pay for electricity, and I've, pre-sold the directs for the next five years. And I've pre-sold them to this global company. So it's a credible off-take agreement. And these of course are ideas at the moment because we haven't got it all up yet. But this, these mechanisms that I described are already at work in the REC markets in north America and in Europe today. So we're not really trying to create anything completely new here. We're trying to build on, on a market instrument that is already working really well in Europe and in the US and extend that and make it more appropriate. So that project developers that are building DRE projects are able to also take advantage of this really powerful instrument.
Are you working on making some kind of standard in how we measure these electrons that are getting sold? Where do you start doing that? Or where is that in this process?
Maybe I'll answer that by starting with just a brief description on how the environmental markets today go about doing that. So let's take, for example, the international REC standard with whom we are working closely and seeking to extend the I-REC into the DRE space, more comprehensively. So they have a stakeholder of which they term the issuer. And so prior to an I-REC being issued - the issuer, which is a country designated authority, essentially reviews generation evidence, and says, I think this particular plant produced X number of megawatt hours. And since one I-REC corresponds to a single megawatt hour, they will say, I will therefore issue this many I-RECs. And so there's this third-party arbitration authority, essentially that will has the jurisdiction to say how many I-RECs are produced from a particular plant. The challenge we're facing is how do we scale that model down when we're talking about potentially thousands of devices, hundreds of thousands of developers -it simply isn't a model that is scalable because then the bottom of that becomes the issuer and they simply don't have the resources really to be able to validate data from all these projects.
And that's really, I think, where we've decided to turn to the broader community and crowdsource the solution and to do so in partnership with the energy web foundation where we've partnered on the technical front. So the Energy Web Foundation - they came out of the Rocky Mountain Institute and they have been focused on deploying new technologies in the energy space to really drive de-carbonisation among them being a blockchain. So we have developed something called the energy web chain, which is a distributed ledger, which can be used for a variety of different applications. One of which happens to be environmental attribute tracking. So there is an open source module called origin, which they've developed, which has already been deployed in a few different countries where they are able to collect data from different devices and work with the I-REC issuer in those countries, and essentially issue I-RECs in a more automated fashion than existed previously.
And our goal is to then further enhance that and add a much stronger component around automated verification. And so that's not just the generation data coming so that we can issue D-RECs. It's really trying to understand the projects and where they're installed and how big they are. And some of the other parameters that we need in order to communicate that information to D-REC buyers, because ultimately our goal is to make the standard you know, as widely adopted as possible. And that means that people need to have trust in how the system verifies project data from a registration standpoint from a national issuance perspective. And so, you know, our goal is to really work closely hand in hand with developers financier's corporate off-takers right, different stakeholders to really develop collectively what that algorithm looks like building off of what's already there with the origin module and the energy web foundation.
So my understanding is that you are not exactly starting from scratch. You're taking something that the energy web foundation has created, and you're using it for this project and building on top of it. And you were just mentioning that you want to make sure that others can continue to build what part of the D-REC initiative is open source. What do you want to leave the community with to continue to build upon?
High level? It really is the whole concept. It is, it is the idea of what the instrument is, how it is governed and then how it is implemented technically in the D-REC platform. We're not inventing a new wheel here. We're simply extending what's already there and allowing for a wider variety of actors to participate in these, in these markets. And so that is extending these existing environmental standards into the DRA space. So the way we're doing that is by essentially working closely with an already published source and ensuring that whatever we develop in terms of governing rules and how the directs are created and tracked and certified we'll essentially have input from all of these stakeholders who are impacted by these rules. And once those rules are published, then I think it will be self-governing the sense that if someone needs a change because a new device is there, or a new application or new data needs to be collected, then it is, it is the right of every stakeholder to essentially bring that up and luckily decide how those rules should be adjusted.
One of the longer-term attribute aspects we're looking at is should there be a governing body for the D-REC code, much as there are for other standards. But even with that, I think the idea is to ensure that that code that is published you know, is one accessible to everyone. And everyone that is impacted has a chance to ensure that it works for them. Then moving to the second aspect, which is a technical platform, as I mentioned, the origin module, which the energy web foundation has developed for environmental attribute tracking is open source. So it is published on GitHub so folks can go and see what the code looks like since we're simply building on that. I would say the D-REC initiative will essentially build a platform that will also be published on repository, like GitHub, be accessible to everyone. And for us, the benefit of that is that it drives that trust in what is being done because we're relying to a high degree on automation.
It's important that people understand how the system is performing the checks that it's providing. And if there are folks who have a better idea of how to make a better widget and to allow the platform to do a more robust verification or to ensure that it allows for a wider variety of devices to participate, we want that door open. And so we want the community to be continued to be involved in ensuring that the platform evolves as the space of ALS as we continue to make progress on SDG7 and SDG 13. And as we continue to see progress in, you know, developers being able to commission more projects to ensure that the platform remains relevant. And so I think the way we do that is by ensuring that, you know, everything we do is open door is easily accessible to all stakeholders. And I think that, you know, in addition, just providing the trust and the verification to the wider ecosystem, I think it just ensures that the D-REC platform will continue to remain relevant as the the sector evolves.
I think that's a really good point that you made about the fact that the open source aspect of it does invoke trust in people because yeah, when there's nothing to hide, you don't have to worry about who's in charge of what, or if there's a way of making it better, it's just out there for anyone to, to be involved in. Where things are right now in the D-REC initiative, what is the challenge that you're facing now? Ricky, I can start with you, and then I can go over to Paul.
The largest issue that we're addressing right now is really how we can best engage corporate buyers. The reason that we've seen a lot of activity around RECs and GEOs and other civil instruments in the US and in Europe, is because most of these corporations that have established climate goals around renewable energy usage, or carbon emissions happen to have their domiciles in the U S or in Europe. And most of their emissions arise from activities in those regions. So thus far, the idea of, of extending the greenhouse gas rules and, and using instruments that will help address emissions in Africa or Asia, and to go south or Southeast Asia, hasn't really been, it hasn't really come up because corporates don't have a huge footprint. And so really for us, I think the idea is ensuring that that companies that do have a footprint can use the D-REC to offset those emissions and to, to really tie the story of why corporate should care about these regions. And it really comes down to climate is a global story, but the, the greenhouse gas rules are set up as if climate is a local story. And so I think really our goal is to reframe the D-REC conversation, not as a simple scope to metric, but to engage corporates with this, this larger narrative around why it's important that when they're looking at investing in climate solutions, that they should look at emerging markets, even though direct operational interests may not be there as per the existing GHG rules.
You mentioned the word offset - when you're explaining this concept to, let's say, a new corporate you're like, this would be able to help you offset your footprint. Is that a fair comparison? Is a D-REC like a carbon offset? What's the reaction that you get when - I'm not sure if I'm the first person to ask this question? My guess would be no - what do you think?
You are not, and, and it is, it is unfortunately a what has become a nuance, you know, a field of as more interest comes around corporate climate, there seems to be proliferation of avenues and interests and ways in which companies can address their, their claims. But fundamentally a REC is, is a measurement of a unit electricity produced by renewable plants and an offset corresponds to avoided emissions. While inherently there are potentially avoided emissions in putting a removal plants in the ground, because you are not building a new coal plant or running an existing coal plant more you're servicing the demand with a renewable system. It is not the same as, as looking at planting a tree and what the carbon offset from that would be part of the benefit of a REC is that it is easy to measure, you know, if a kilowatt hour or megawatt hours produced with a carbon offset, which measures of what an emissions - it is harder to measure that because you have to see what it would have been if you had not done this particular activity, and now what it is, and proving the, what it would have been is a lot more challenging.
And so our perspective is that a REC is easier to think about because you can see the outcome, you know, whether it was produced or not because the electricity was generated and delivered. Whereas with a carbon offset, it's a little trickier because you have to prove the counterfactual.
That's a really good explanation. Thank you for that. I'm really glad that people got the chance to hear you answer to that. Paul, why don't I throw it over to you and ask you, what is the hardest part of making this happen? Or if you don't want to talk about the hardest part, what do you think most important thing that you're working on right now is sometimes those are the same things, but I'll leave it to you to distinguish.
Well, I think what's been very rewarding, and the opportunity is, this incredible and growing climate ambition. Look, the climate impact of any new renewables actually depends on what you're displacing. Right? If you add more solar to the California grid, that's going to have a certain climate impact depending on, you know, how much dirty electricity you're displacing. So it turns out that if you add more renewables to the US grid on average, you're displacing about 400 and what is it? 402 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour. So that's pretty good. If you're adding more renewables in Europe, you actually have less climate impact because the grid is already greener. So you're only displacing 255 grams of CO2 per kilowatt. So, you know, if you're choosing, where should we invest in renewables? Well, it turns out that you can have a much bigger impact by deploying new renewables in Africa.
Because while in Southern Africa, for example, where most of the grids are are coal-fired, you're going to displace 950 grams of CO2, like double or triple what you're going to get out of the U S or Europe in terms of climate impact. And if you're displacing diesel generators, you're displacing hundred grams of CO2. So purely from a climate perspective, if you're a corporate and you want to invest in renewable energy, you want to maximize the climate impact dollar for dollar. We need to go where these new renewables can displace the dirtiest energy on the planet. And sadly, in many cases, that's in emerging markets where many people, many communities are stuck with some really dirty energy. So that's the opportunity. And I think what's been exciting is that, that, that reasoning, that logic makes a lot of sense to many companies sometimes because maybe they don't have direct operations in those markets. So they cannot use the renewable energy certificates under the GHG protocol for their scope two emissions, but they know that their supply chains touch those markets. They know that they have customers in those markets, Android phones are being used all over Africa. For example, these are global companies with global footprints on the supply side and their supply chains, but also upstream or downstream people are using their products. So the best companies, the climate leaders, are looking for climate impact, but also for climate justice. And that's been really exciting to see.
Thank you guys so much for explaining these things. I could ask you at least 500 more questions, but I don't want to end of course, without giving you each the opportunity to bring anything up that you would want to make sure to say today that I didn't get the chance to ask you.
Well, you know, Ricky's mentioned the pilot opportunities. I think that's one way that that companies and climate investors can get involved right now and project developers too. So please reach out to us if you want to explore as a corporate, if you want to explore how you can maximize your climate impact and, and accelerate the energy transition in developing countries. Talk to us, we've got some fantastic pilot projects in the pipeline
For those listening, please visit our website, which is d-recs.energy. We'll post some updates there as we continue to make some progress. So we're always looking for new information, new perspective. So please do drop us a line through there.
Thank you so much, Ricky and Paul for talking to me today on open energy access. And of course, all of the websites and the context that you mentioned in this conversation will be listed in the show notes. And this podcast will also be included on enaccess.org/drecs as part of the open source materials that Positive Capital Partners is creating. And EnAccess also recently published two documents authored by Ricky that go into a lot more detail about some of the topics that we talked about today. If you want to learn in much more detail, why I-RECs don't lend themselves well to the DRE market and what the direct will actually look like as the proof of concept, then head over to enaccess.org/drecs, and you can read and share those documents completely freely. There is of course, so much more to discuss about the D-REC Initiative.
So tell me what you would want to learn about, or what topic did we discuss today that needs, that needs more explanation. I would be really happy to hear your feedback, answer questions, and help you get in contact with the right people at Positive Capital Partners or South Pole, if you would like to become more involved. So remember to share this podcast with a friend and leave a review so that more people can find Open Energy Access in their podcast feeds. And if you are working on something for the energy access sector that would benefit from being open-sourced, then go ahead and submit an application for funding today through our website. Thanks again for your time today. And remember to follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, or subscribe to our email list. My name is Tamara Mahoney and Open Energy Access will be back in your podcast feeds again soon.