Renewable Energy Bracketology

RMI Staff Make NCAA March Madness Picks

This year Americans filled out an estimated 70 million brackets for the NCAA’s men’s college basketball tournament. And every year, family, friends and work colleagues look for the secret formula to completing the winning bracket. The President of the United States likes to weigh-in, and last year Warren Buffett even offered $1 billion to the person who completed a perfect bracket. (Just one day into the tournament, a full 99 percent of CBS and ESPN brackets were already busted…) Although no one has ever picked a perfect bracket, there is no shortage of strategies (such as those here, here, here, and here) that could help gain an edge. And we here at RMI have a strategy, too: going all in on renewable energy.

After the tournament bracket was released Sunday night, we collected data on the renewable energy portfolio of the utility serving the main campus of each school playing in the tournament. The 2015 tournament is powered by a representative cross-section of the electric industry: 80 percent of schools are served by investor-owned utilities, 13 percent municipal, 3 percent cooperatives, 2 percent state power agencies, and 1 percent private electric utilities (Harvard University is powered by a private entity, Harvard Dedicated Energy Limited). Duke Energy, the largest utility in the United States, powers eight teams in North Carolina, Ohio, and Indiana.

How we made our picks

Almost immediately in our analysis, we were presented with a challenge: how to rank the teams—and the utilities that power them—based on renewable energy. Which types of renewables to include or exclude? Did renewable energy credits (RECs) count? Rank by installed capacity or actual energy generation? How to account for on-site generation not included in utility portfolios? And the list of questions went on.

As such, we did our best to set rules for our bracket picks to ensure a level playing field, or in the case of basketball, a level playing court:

  • We collected data from the most recent year available (typically 2013), based on the percentage of renewable energy in the utility supply. (Note: for some utilities, only the percentage of capacity was available. While we realize this isn’t quite a fair comparison, energy supply data was not readily available for some utilities.) We recognize that many utilities added significant renewable resources in 2014, but not all of them have published last year’s data yet. Also, for the Texas teams served by competitive retail suppliers, we used the ERCOT system average.
  • Tie breakers, when and where necessary, were based on the 2014 Green Guide or other data on campus-sited renewables (such as KU vs. WSU and Villanova vs. Lafayette).
  • We included large-scale hydro as a renewable resource, but readily admit that it gave a big boost to certain teams, such as those from the Pacific Northwest.

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Sports stats? Easy to obtain. Renewables stats? Not so much.

Despite having a number of industry-savvy staff on RMI’s roster, it proved surprisingly difficult to find renewables data for many utilities. Sure, the release of the brackets on Sunday only provided us with a little more than three days to review utility resource portfolios for 68 teams. But it’s startling how detailed stats for the Naismith Award finalists—and pretty much any other collegiate basketball player—are readily available at the click of a button, yet basic renewables stats are comparatively buried. Many customers would likely have great difficulty parsing through utility integrated resource plans and renewable portfolio standard compliance reports, to say nothing of the difficulty of navigating many utility websites.

Amidst that sea of plans and reports, we applaud two approaches in Texas: the “Electricity Facts Label” used by many competitive retailers, as well as the detailed transparency in the corporate reports provided by municipal utility Austin Energy.

And our pick for the winner is…

Our bracket picks reveal a tournament outcome that not even ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi could envision:

  • In the Midwest region, the tournament immediately gets interesting as the undefeated tournament favorite Kentucky Wildcats (and their paltry 0.5% renewable energy) lose in the first round to the Hampton Pirates. After the #2 seed Kansas Jayhawks win a tiebreaker in round two over Wichita State (both are served by Westar Energy, but Kansas wins with more on-campus renewables), the 11th-seed Texas Longhorns* advance to the Final Four, with a 14.6% renewable portfolio provided by Austin Energy.
  • In the West region, upsets reign supreme as the #8 seed University of Oregon Ducks bulldoze #1 seed Wisconsin, #13 seed Harvard Crimson, and #11 seed Mississippi Bulldogs to reach the Final Four. The Eugene Water and Electric Board provides the U of O campus with 95% clean energy.
  • In the East region, #1 seed Villanova needs a tie-breaker from its on-campus geothermal plant to advance past #16 Lafayette. The rest of the bracket is full of upsets, as the #s 9, 12, 13, 14, and 15 seeds all advance out of the round of 64. Ultimately, UC-Irvine prevails over Belmont to reach the Final Four.
  • In the South region, for the first time in tournament history, cinderella Eastern Washington—the #13 seed—advances to the Final Four. Fueled by abundant hydropower, the Eagles served by municipal utility Cheney Light defeated their rivals across the Spokane River, the Gonzaga Bulldogs served by Avista Utilities, to cut down the nets.

The 2015 Final Four will be played at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN (when will Lucas Oil Stadium add on-site renewables like Wells Fargo Arena at Arizona State University? NRDC offers a nice guide to help stadiums add solar). Although five teams from Indiana qualified for this year’s tournament, none are represented in our Final Four picks.

And our choice for the ultimate winner? The University of Oregon Ducks!

Now we’ll watch and wait—with the rest of the country—to see how March Madness really unfolds. In truth, the probability of our Final Four picks actually making it to the Final Four is very low: Texas (2 percent), Oregon (1 percent), UC-Irvine (<1 percent), and Eastern Washington (<1 percent). But that doesn’t take away from the high percentage of clean energy powering their campuses. They’re our picks, and we’re standing behind them. Renewable energy is a winning proposition—for the electricity grid, if not on the basketball court.

Many thanks to our colleagues Leia Guccione and Koben Calhoun for kicking around the idea and researcher the renewables portfolios of all the brackets. In the interest of transparency, here are our respective alma maters and researched brackets:

Matt Lehrman, Wisconsin ’05 and Kansas ’10, Midwest Bracket
James Sherwood, Sonoma State ’10 and Stanford ’12, West Bracket
Koben Calhoun, Puget Sound ’03 and Michigan ’12, East Bracket
Leia Guccione, Iowa State ’04 and U of London ’13, South Bracket

Image courtesy of Aspen Photo /