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Analysis | How carbon offsets add up

Take a look at carbon offsets, courtesy of Tropicana Field

If you were one of the 36,000 fans who crowded into air-conditioned Tropicana Field this month for the Tampa Bay Rays home opener, take comfort. The Rays paid for your sins. While you sputtered in game-day traffic, greenhouse gases streaming skyward from your tailpipe, the team invested in an increasingly popular form of environmental absolution: carbon offsets.

The much-ballyhooed purchase is, by its very nature, invisible. Instead of spending on helmets or bats — or, say, pitching — the team plunked money down to prevent the release of carbon dioxide, the unseen gas behind global warming.

So how does a skeptical reporter get to the bottom of the greening of the Rays? After all, no one regulates the vast U.S. market in offsets. No one polices the dealers who supposedly plant trees and build windmills on your behalf.

The Rays laid bare their carbon computations for the St. Petersburg Times. In the process, the Times stumbled onto a shortfall worth nearly 900,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. How did the team come up short? And what became of its missing wind?

As Rays spokeswoman Melanie Lenz aptly put it, "The world of carbon credits can be a very interesting one to navigate."

The concept behind carbon offsets is simple. Instead of cutting your carbon footprint, you pay someone else to do it for you. Newly planted trees might absorb carbon dioxide on your behalf, or you might contribute to a new flock of windmills that produce power free of fossil fuels.

Carbon offsets have been around since at least 2001, but surged into the mainstream in 2006. The New Oxford American Dictionary dubbed "carbon neutral" its 2006 word of the year. Americans shelled out at least $91-million that year for projects that promised to soak up 24-million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, according to New Carbon Finance, a leading carbon market analyst.

Although the latest numbers won't be available until next month, the volume of sales more than doubled in 2007 even as the price went up, said Milo Sjardin, head of New Carbon Finance North America.

Critics liken offsets to the defunct Catholic indulgence. Instead of trimming her own carbon footprint, the guilt-ridden polluter clears her conscience by buying dispensation, then rides off into the smog-filled sunset in a brand new Hummer.

The Hummer, in this case, is Tropicana Field.

• • •

The Trop encompasses 22 air-conditioned acres, cooled to a comfortable 76 degrees. It devours more than 62,000 kilowatt hours of electricity on a single game day — enough to power the average Progress Energy household for more than four years.

The Rays decided to offset the power use of the field on opening day, and the fans driving to and from the game. The team also wanted to offset the Trop for an additional six game days, and the daily commutes of its 140 employees.

To help calculate its carbon footprint, the team worked with an environmental engineer and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, an Oregon nonprofit that has sold offsets since 2001.

Bonneville's oddest offset? Patrick Nye, Bonneville's vice president of sales, had a ready answer: "Hot air balloon ride for Cameron Diaz. In Africa."

Nye mashed together the number of cars the Rays expected, the average fan roundtrip and the fuel mix burned in the state's power plants. At the end of a long string of equations, he came up with the Rays' total: 1.85-million pounds of carbon dioxide. The yearly commutes of the team's staff was by far the biggest contributor, accounting for close to 960,000 pounds of carbon dioxide every year.

But don't worry. The Trop recently installed bike racks.

• • •

About the missing wind.

The Rays initially made a nearly $6,000 purchase of 646 "Green Tags," each equal to a megawatt hour of wind power. That's nearly enough electricity to power Progress Energy's average household for more than 45 years.

Each megawatt hour of wind energy means that much less electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels, Nye explained. Bonneville estimated that a megawatt hour from its wind projects prevents the emission of 1,500 pounds of carbon dioxide.

For those of you without a calculator, that comes to an offset of about 969,000 pounds of carbon — or about half of the Rays' footprint. While Nye patiently walked through his calculations with the Times, he uncovered a glitch. He'd accidentally dropped a rather important zero, he sheepishly noted. In the same breath, he promised to fix the mistake.

Once informed of the error, the Rays' Lenz said it was a "minor hiccup" in an otherwise blissful working relationship with Bonneville. Bonneville quickly provided an additional 589 green tags to the Rays, bringing their carbon absolution up to the needed 1.85-million pounds.

So don a sweater and root for the Rays at the chilly Trop. And the Rays will take care of those 62,000 kilowatt hours burned to keep you cool.

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at or (813) 225-3117.

Carbon footprint:
Tropicana Field uses 62.042 megawatt hours of electricity on a typical game day. • Each megawatt hour produces 1,328 pounds of carbon dioxide. • The Rays planned to offset seven games. • The team also offset 11,500 cars traveling 30 miles to and from opening day, 140 employees commuting 30 miles roundtrip for 250 work days. • The EPA estimates the average car mileage at 21.4 mpg. • Burning a gallon of gas produces 19.564 pounds of carbon dioxide. All this adds up to: 1.85-million pounds of CO2 created

Carbon offsets:
The Trop bought 372 green tags to offset the power use for six games, plus 210 green tags to
offset the Trop power use and fan commutes on opening day, plus 653 green tags for employee commutes. • Each tag equals 1 mega-watt hour of wind power. • Every megawatt hour of wind prevents the release of 1,500 pounds of carbon dioxide by displacing the need to burn fossil fuels. All this adds up to: 1.85-million pounds of CO2 offsets

A primer on offsets

The United States doesn't regulate over-the-counter offset purchases, and it's hard for consumers to figure out what they are paying for. Clean Air-Cool Planet, a New Hampshire environmental advocacy group, offers some rough guidelines to make sure you really reduce emissions and get the offsets for which you pay:

• Have you done everything you can to cut back on your emissions, like lowering your electricity use or driving fewer miles?

• Calculate your carbon footprint. Several Web sites, like TerraPass and Carbon Counter, offer calculators. Your electric and gas bills should tell you how much energy you use at home.

• How is the company calculating the avoided emissions?

• Ask the carbon offset company if its offsets result from specific projects. Has the project been verified by an independent third-party?

• Is the renewable energy you bought "additional," or would it have been produced anyway?

• Can they demonstrate that the offsets haven't been sold to multiple buyers?

Take a look at carbon offsets, courtesy of Tropicana Field 04/26/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2008 3:28pm]
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