May 5, 2006

Green tags: breathtaking gall, deflating gullibility

Activewear marketer Prana (which means "breath," in the sense of "spirit" or "life-force," in Sanskrit) has clambered on to the "100% wind powered" charade with its "Natural Power" initiative. The goal of offsetting the negative environmental impacts of the company's activities is commendable. The use of renewable energy certificates, or green tags, from wind power, however, makes it a sham.

Even the symbol of the initiative is misleading: an old wind-powered water pump, which never had anything to do with electricity, let alone transport and heating (electricity being only one source of emissions).

Consumer excitement about "offsetting" one's carbon emissions (without, of course, giving anything up except a few spare dollars) is understandable. When it involves actually planting trees, insulating roofs, or switching to compact fluorescents, or even buying renewable energy where one's utility makes it available, it is worthwhile. But the willful self-deception of buying green tags is inexcusable.

On Prana's web site they write, "Wind generated power is a clean, renewable source of energy which produces no greenhouse gas emissions or waste products." That is an obviously simplistic statement. Greenhouse gases and waste are indeed produced during the manufacture, transport, construction, and maintenance of wind turbines. Acres of trees, often in ecologically vital interior forests, are cut down for each tower, access roads, and transmission infrastructure. Hundreds of gallons of lubricating and cooling oil in each turbine must be periodically replaced (and often leaks). The giant rotor blades are often destroyed by wind, lightning, and fire.

Prana goes on to explain how they offset their electricity use (although not the energy used in transport and heating):

Prana has committed to offsetting approximately 6,000,000 kilowatt hours, or 100% of the electricity generated to power 250 retail locations nationwide by supporting the generation of an equal amount of renewable energy by purchasing US EPA approved Renewable Energy Certificates, also known as 'RECs' or 'Green Tags'. ...

Generating electricity from wind still costs more than generating it from fossil fuel sources, in spite of exciting advancement in wind energy technology [i.e., the towers and rotor blades get bigger --Ed.]. The additional funds provided to renewable energy generators through the purchase of certificates by Prana and others provide critical additional financial incentive for project expansion and future development.
There it is: The sale of green tags simply provides an extra income stream to the generator. It does not add wind power to the grid. It does not offset anything, because the energy (along with the benefits it represents) has entered the grid anyway. It's lovely to donate extra money to wind power companies (such as GE, Florida Power & Light, Goldman Sachs, and J.P. Morgan) if you believe they need it or you think it relieves your energy-use guilt. But you cannot claim that you are offsetting the electricity you use (which doesn't change). You cannot claim that you are "100% wind powered."

The purchase of green tags does not cause any more or less wind power to enter the grid. Nor does it cause any more or less conventional power to be used. As Prana themselves clarify, "The electricity will continue to be uninterrupted even when the wind isn't blowing. As always, the retail locations are still connected to the respective regional electricity systems."

Enron invented the accounting trick that allows separating the actual energy generated by a renewable source from its "environmental attributes." This essentially allowed them to sell wind energy twice. Prana uncritically describes this absurd fraud:
Renewable energy has two components: the energy commodity and the corresponding green power attribute. The Energy Commodity is the actual electricity produced at facilities that generate the renewable electricity. The electricity generated is sold as conventional/generic (market) power stripped of its environmental benefits, or attributes. No environmental claims can be made on this power, because it is separate from the associated environmental benefits that are at the center of a Renewable Energy Certificate.
In other words, the energy goes into the grid whether or not its green tags are sold, but it's only "green" when the tags are sold. It's magic!

And although the energy is already used, only the buyers of the green tags, which cost a fraction of what the actual energy costs, get to be able to say they "use green energy." Elaborate accreditation and certification processes ensure that none of the many brokers blunder and knock over the house of cards.

Prana again:
It is not possible to send the electricity directly to store facilities or any other specific end user location because of the nature of the electricity grid. ... Once renewable electricity is delivered to the electric grid, it mixes with power from other generating plants. This means the actual electricity generated from 'green' sources cannot be directed to a specific home or business.
Either the energy has environmental benefits or it doesn't. If it does, that is because it enters the grid, not because RECs are sold. (sigh)

wind power, wind energy, wind farms, Vermont, environment, environmentalism, sustainability, green energy, green living, green business, carbon offset, ecoanarchism