Update: This story was updated 11:08 June 4, with a statement from Jordan McGillis, a spokesman for the Institute for Energy Research.

Ohio-based Fifth Third Bank claimed in a March press release it’s the “first Fortune 500 company and first bank to contract for 100 percent renewable power through a single new project.” The project is a $200-million, 80-megawatt solar facility slated for a 1,600-acre site in Hertford County.

But when questioned by Carolina Journal about the claim, a company official acknowledged the solar facility wouldn’t power any of the bank’s 1,200 locations in 10 states, including North Carolina. Director of Sustainability Scott Hassell said the company will “continue to consume electricity as we always have.”  

Fifth Third’s claims rest on the concept that a megawatt hour of renewable solar electricity generated in rural North Carolina can offset a megawatt hour produced by traditional utilities — from coal, nuclear, natural gas, or other sources — and used at one of the bank’s locations. Fifth Third has 55 locations in 33 North Carolina cities. The Fifth Third solar farm is about 120 miles from Raleigh — the nearest Fifth Third Bank office.  

Fifth Third didn’t come up with this concept on its own. The company is affiliated with RE100, a program launched in 2014 sponsored by the Climate Group and CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project).  RE100 is a “collaborative, global initiative uniting more than 100 influential businesses committed to 100 percent renewable electricity, working to massively increase demand for — and delivery of — renewable energy.”  

In 2016, BankAmerica joined RE100 and committed to be 100 percent renewable by 2020. Wells Fargo Bank joined in RE100 and allegedly met its 100 percent renewable goal in 2017.  

RE100 uses its website and social media to urge its members to use their green claims to prod other companies into joining the offset business. A  recent post  stated:  

“As a member of RE100, we envision a future where renewables are the mainstream choice of electricity for all global businesses, and where corporates are active participants in energy markets and policy debates.”  

The goal? “Decarbonization” — ending the use of fossil fuels such as crude oil, natural gas, or coal.  

“This optimism has led a momentum on climate action which has seen businesses leading the way in accelerating the transition to a zero-carbon economy, alongside cities, regions, and national governments committing to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions,” the site says.  

Fifth Third and similar companies, including Apple, Google, and Amazon make green claims by securing power purchase agreements or Renewable Energy Certificates. They buy “green” power offsets, though the energy often in produced far from the businesses’ physical locations. Companies rely on this concept to project an environmentally responsible public image.  

Indeed, Fifth Third’s press release stated the “initiative affirms our bold commitment to advance environmental stewardship on behalf of customers, employees, and shareholders.”  

In 2016, less than 3 percent of the total electricity generated in North Carolina came from solar facilities, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Nationwide, solar generation in 2016 was less than 1 percent.

The project “powering” Fifth Third, off N.C. Highway 11 in Hertford County between Ahoskie and Aulander, will be built and operated by Aulander Holloman Solar LLC, a subsidiary of Mooresville-based SunEnergy1. SunEnergy1 is one of the country’s largest solar developers. Fifth Third will buy all the power generated by the project, estimated to be 194,000 megawatt hours per year. 

Hassell, of Fifth Third, told CJ the solar project should produce enough power to match the bank’s estimated annual energy consumption. The bank signed a Power Purchase Agreement with SunEnergy1 to buy all the power at a fixed price per megawatt hour.

The bank will resell the power to the regional transmission grid. Prices for the power will fluctuate along with the spot energy market. The difference between the energy Fifth Third actually buys from local utilities at its locations and the power produced in Hertford County will be reconciled monthly. The bank will get either a check or a bill from SunEnergy1 for the difference.  

He said the bank’s contract let SunEnergy1 get a loan to build the project. Any profit or loss the bank makes from the energy transactions is confidential, Hassell said. “We have taken the risk in the short run and long run to say we are using green energy.” 

But claims and reality are sometimes at odds.

“On the one hand, we, as advocates for a free market and a free society, are encouraged when we see businesses taking steps to enact their values without resorting to lobbying the government to coerce other entities,” said Jordan McGillis is a spokesman for the Institute for Energy Research, a Washington, D.C.–based advocate for freely-functioning energy markets.

“But on the other hand, the actual steps companies like Fifth Third are taking are not nearly as substantial as their ‘100 percent renewable’ claims suggest.

“Unless a business is disconnected from the electricity grid, it will continue to benefit from the undifferentiated electricity supplied in its region. Fifth Third’s purchase agreement does not mean it will exclusively use solar power — and if it did, that would be very bad news. Solar energy is an intermittent source that requires standbys like natural gas and coal to back it up when the sun doesn’t shine. By claiming ‘100 percent renewable’ status, Fifth Third seeks the social benefits of ‘going green’ while it continues to reap the material benefits of reliable electricity.”

Other renewable claims

Major companies began announcing commitments to renewable energy in part through the efforts of the environmental organization Greenpeace. It called out Amazon in an April 2014 report about electricity consumption at large data centers.

“Among the major cloud providers, only Amazon refuses to provide any details on the energy performance and environmental impact associated with its operations,” the report says.  

In November 2014, seven months after the Greenpeace report, Amazon Web Services announced a “commitment to achieve 100 percent renewable energy usage for the global AWS infrastructure footprint,” according to the company’s website. Amazon fulfills its commitment in part with the output from the Amazon Wind Farm near Elizabeth City, N.C. 

Apple announced April 9 that 100 percent of its global facilities are powered clean energy. “This achievement includes retail stores, offices, data centers and co-located facilities in 43 countries — including the United States, the United Kingdom, China and India,” the company’s press release said.  

SunEnergy1 initiated the Aulander Holloman Solar project in February 2015 when it submitted an application to the N.C. Utilities Commission. Like all other solar projects, this facility won’t produce reliable electricity 24 hours a day.

SunEnergy1 completed another large North Carolina project in 2017. Three parties — the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Boston Medical Center, and the Post Office Square Redevelopment Corporation —  claimed energy from the 60-megawatt Summit Farms Solar project in Currituck County will offset their “carbon footprint.” MIT says the solar power purchased from the Currituck facility will equal 40 percent of the institute’s current electricity use.

Boston Medical and the redevelopment group say the Summit Farms Solar power will offset 100 percent of their electricity use. But none of the electricity generated at Summit Farms Solar will supply energy to those Massachusetts facilities. It will not even be on the electrical grid they use.