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energy pricing and greenwash

a briefing document

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Energy pricing and greenwash is one in a series of briefing documents investigating the indicators, science, analysis and argument surrounding global warming.
One of a grouping of documents on global concerns at abelard.org.
on energy on global warming
sustainable futures briefing documents

On housing and making living systems ecological

Tectonics: tectonic plates - floating on the surface of a cauldron


greenwash - introduction
USA nuclear energy - 1.66¢ per kw
solar panels costs going down, but not yet cheaper than traditional sources
peak shaving

site map


Greenwash is a new word [both noun and verb] derived from the word ‘whitewash’. Those who greenwash pretend to work for the environment, while doing no such thing. An example is major companies who claim that they are offsetting their carbon emissions, but are not in fact. The following linked .pdf file is a useful review, with a helpful appendix.

the pardoner’s return - the growing art of greenwash

“Catholic doctrine maintains that to avoid time in Purgatory after you die, you need to expiate your sins via some sort of punishment or task that is an external manifestation of your repentance. The idea was that the clergy were doing more of such actions than their meager sins demanded, so they effectively had a surplus of good deeds. Under the logic of the emerging market, these could be sold as indulgences to sinners who had money, but not necessarily the time or inclination to repent for themselves. Chaucer’s The Pardoner's Tale immortalised the sale of such indulgences by pardoners, which was essentially how the church took a market-based approach to sinning as a means of income generation. The Brazilian theologian Dr. Odair Pedroso Mateus pointed out in 2001 that indulgences are "not about grace and gratefulness but about exchanging goods, about buying and selling, about capitalism".

“Many centuries later, there are new indulgences on the market in the form of carbon offsets. The modern-day Pardoners are companies like Climate Care, the Carbon Neutral Company, Offset My Life and many others. These selfstyled ‘eco-capitalists’ are building up what they claim are ‘good climate deeds’ through projects which supposedly reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions. These wholesale emissions reductions can then be profitably sold back at retail prices to modern-day sinners who have money, but not necessarily the time or inclination to take responsibility for their emissions, and can afford to buy the surplus ‘good deeds’ from the offset companies.”

“CO2 is absorbed by trees as part of the carbon cycle, an incredibly complicated set of chemical, physical, geological, and biological processes passing carbon through the earth's biosphere. The carbon cycle can be divided into two parts: active and inert. Trees are part of the active carbon cycle, a continual movement of carbon among plants, organisms, water and the atmosphere. In contrast, reserves of fossil fuels are inert: the carbon they contain is locked up and does not come into contact with the active part of the carbon cycle unless we burn them. Movement of carbon between the active cycle and the inert pool is one-way - once carbon is released from the inert pool by burning fossil fuels, it enters the active cycle. It will not return to the inert pool unless it undergoes the same sort of millennia-long geological process that transformed it into a fossil fuel in the first place.

“This fact holds numerous implications for plantation offsets. Firstly, there is scientific uncertainty surrounding the complicated exchanges of the active part of the carbon cycle. There is a huge degree of variation in estimates of how much CO2 trees are capable of absorbing and for how long they store how much of it, so it is impossible to tell with any degree of accuracy how many trees you would need to plant in order to accurately ‘neutralise’ your emissions.

“One of the more recent examples of this scientific uncertainty was a study published in Nature in January 2006, which showed that trees and plants are responsible for emitting a lot more methane (another of the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change) into the atmosphere than had been previously thought, contributing something in the region of 10 to 30 per cent of the annual total of methane entering the earth's atmosphere. Dr. Richard Betts of the Hadley Centre, a climate monitoring organisation, commented that while the research would not greatly influence predictions of global average temperature, "it shows how complicated it is to exactly quantify reforesting or deforesting in comparison with current fossil fuel emissions".

“A study published in December 2006 by the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Stanford, California concluded that most forests do not have any overall impact on global temperature. "The idea that you can go out and plant a tree and help reverse global warming is an appealing, feel-good thing," said Ken Caldeira, a co-author of the study, "to plant forests to mitigate climate change outside of the tropics is a waste of time.”

“ The credibility of all offsets projects is further undermined by the fact that today's emissions are not the equivalent of emissions being ‘neutralised’ over a period of time. The reason why the offset companies can argue for carbon neutrality is they are using a carbon calculation method that is best termed ‘future value accounting’. Carbon savings expected to be made in the future are counted as savings made in the present. This is the same technique used by Enron to inflate its profits with such disastrous consequences. Each time someone offsets their emissions, the amount of CO2 emitted is automatically in the atmosphere, whereas the period of ‘neutralisation’ takes place over a much-longer time period, sometimes 100 years. If that person keeps offsetting regularly, their rate of emissions increases rises at a much faster rate than the rate at which their activities are being ‘neutralised’ to the point at which, far from being climate neutral, quite the opposite is true. The carbon in the atmosphere increases at a far greater rate than it's supposed ‘neutralisation’.”

This document is a very interesting elementary analysis of the conmanship behind so-called carbon offsetting. You will find the alleged carbon offsets do no such thing in any serious sense (examine the graphs in the appendix). Much of the claimed offset schemes are, in fact, primarily funded by other agencies who also tend to take the vast majority of the financial burden of the schemes. Even the legality of the supposed/alleged rights purchased by the ‘offsets’ are often dubious, unenforceable and unreliably maintainable for the number of decades claimed.

This greenwash, combined with the poor reasoning often exhibited in society, is confusing many people. This document gives some examples of current progress in developing economic alternatives to fossil fuels, alternatives that eventually should reduce industrial/communal carbon footprints.

It is not enough to install ‘clean’ methods of fuel generation. The manufacturing and installation costs need to be considered, as well as the production costs.

Alternative power generation methods will only be truly viable when all their costs are lower than those for generating power using fossil fuels.

USA nuclear energy - 1.66¢ per kw

“The US nuclear industry generated its second-highest amount of electricity ever last year, while also reaching record low production costs, the Nuclear Energy Institute said Tuesday.

“ The industry group said 103 nuclear plants nationwide generated 787.6 billion kilowatt hours of electricity last year, just off the 788.5 billion kwh record set in 2004.

“At the same time, production costs sank to a record 1.66 cents per kilowatt hour in 2006, despite three years of price increases for uranium, the fuel used in nuclear generation.”

marker at abelard.org

solar panels costs going down, but not yet cheaper than traditional sources

“Energy from solar panels currently costs 22-40 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with the national average consumers now pay of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour from traditional sources.”

[Note the difference between nuclear production costs and consumer prices. There is also the delivery system to consider, a factor which can be bypassed by photovoltaics.]

“Innovation and lower manufacturing and installation costs will make solar-generated electricity competitive with other sources of power supplied to the grid, experts said.

“Solar panels cost residential consumers about $7 to $10 per watt and commercial buildings $5.50 to $7.50 per watt, compared with over $100 per watt in the 1970s.”

[Note that as a generalisation, traditional generating capacity is approximately $1000 per kw.]

This is a very misleading article but interesting never-the-less. In Germany and Japan, solar generation is highly subsidised.

With solar power generation, there is a major storage problem that just seems to evaporate when the sales pitch starts!

marker at abelard.org

peak shaving

“The "tipping point" will arrive when the capital cost of solar power falls below $1 (51p) per watt, roughly the cost of carbon power. We are not there yet. The best options today vary from $3 to $4 per watt - down from $100 in the late 1970s.

Mr Sethi believes his product will cut the cost to 80 cents per watt within five years, and 50 cents in a decade.”

“Needless to say, electricity utilities are watching the solar revolution with horror. Companies in Japan and Germany have already seen an erosion of profits because of an effect known "peak shaving". In essence, the peak wattage of solar cells overlaps with hours of peak demand and peak prices for electricity in the middle of the day, crunching margins.”

related material
Solar revolution: the economic transformation of the global energy industry

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