Take renewable energy claims with "grain of salt"
04/16/18 Filed in: Energy
Reader feedback at end
Apple Computer has delivered ever-improving computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices and earned fabulous profits in the process. That’s good for them and good for consumers, a reassuring example of capitalism in action.
But like other companies, Apple is not above spinning the facts to burnish its public image, so some degree of skepticism may be in order. For example, consider this recent report. Apple says facilities now using 100% renewable power, Tripp Mickle & Timothy Puka, Wall Street Journal, 4/9/18.
*[Apple has achieved] “a decade-old goal of having its facilities world-wide powered exclusively by renewable energy” [also referred to in the article as clean energy] – the result encompasses “all of its retail stores, offices, data centers and partner data centers, as well as its new headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., Apple Park.”
*More than 100 major companies, “including Apple, IKEA, Anheuser-Busch InBev SA and Starbucks Corp., pledged in 2014 to shift to 100% renewable energy. By the end of 2016, 25 had already met the pledge, according to the collaborative, named RE100.”
*Apple’s Vice President of Environment Lisa Jackson said Apple would not rest until its more than 200 suppliers [who produce the products it sells], many of them located in Asia, were also 100% renewable. “We think that it’s a matter of good policy and good sense to move toward cleaner forms of energy.”
*CEO Tim Cook previously pressed for the US to stay in the Paris climate treaty [sic, technically it’s an “accord”] and sent a memo to employees saying that “climate change is real.” Apple has also written to the EPA in opposition to repealing the Clean Power Plan.
Hmm, how could all this be true when a majority of electric power on the grid is generated by burning fossil fuels and intermittent wind and solar power cannot ensure the 24/7 availability of electric power that consumers expect? We decided to kick the tires a bit.
A. Background – SAFE has often written about the manmade global warming theory (buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels is driving global warming. which could spiral out of control). In our view, this theory was spun primarily for political reasons and the scientific case in its favor remains unproven.
Does this put SAFE in the “deniers of science” category? Not at all, as we happen to favor objective research to either confirm or disprove the MMGWT. It’s actually the other side that has striven to foreclose inquiry and debate about this subject. Global warming skeptics are not enemies of science, 5/2/16.
In general, supporters of the MMGWT advocate a two-pronged effort to curb CO2 emissions – a phaseout of fossil fuel energy sources in favor of so-called “renewable energy” (aka clean energy or green energy) and, even better, energy conservation.
The prime types of renewable energy are wind and solar power; hydroelectric power is also considered to fall in this category (although some environmentalists have concerns about damming rivers). What is renewable energy? International Energy Agency, accessed 4/13/18.
Renewable energy is “energy derived from natural processes (e.g. sunlight and wind) that are replenished at a faster rate than they are consumed. Solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, and some forms of biomass are common sources of renewable energy.”
As the IEA writeup acknowledges, wind and solar power are variable [or intermittent], so other generating sources, storage facilities, etc. will be needed for a functional electric grid.
. . . large shares of variable renewables supply may increase pressure on power systems, which may need increased flexibility [or reliability] to respond to this balancing issue. More flexible generating capacities (e.g. gas and hydro power plants), interconnections, storage (e.g. with pumped-hydro plants), and/or load-management empowered by smart grids, can be combined to provide the required flexibility.
What about other energy sources? Coal power is regarded as beyond the pale because considerably more CO2 is emitted than comes from burning natural gas. Some environmentalists would accept nuclear power plants, which don’t burn fossil fuels at all, but nuclear power is commonly resisted based on other perceived problems.
And then there are fuel cells, which can produce power from the chemical oxidation of gaseous fuels, e.g., natural gas. (In theory, fuel cells could run on hydrogen, with no carbon emissions, but hydrogen would be prohibitively expensive for this purpose.) Fuel cells have been classed as renewable energy in some cases, e.g., by statute in Delaware, but they emit equivalent (or higher) amounts of CO2 per unit of power produced than a combined cycle natural gas plant. Costly fuel cells, John E. Greer, Jr., P.E. (ret.), SAFE Newsletter, Spring 2018.
B. Apple’s goals – Lisa Jackson was EPA administrator in President Obama’s first term, and SAFE wrote about her while she was serving in that capacity. At the time, it struck us that Ms. Jackson wasn’t above overstating the potential benefits from forced reduction of CO2 emissions. Consider these excerpts from a speech she made on the 40th anniversary of the Clean Air Act. Dear EPA: Shape up or ship out, 11/29/10.
[The Act] is literally a life saver. We estimate that it has prevented tens of thousands of premature deaths – each year. Along with lives saved, the Clean Air Act has reduced asthma attacks, heart disease, and numerous other health conditions Americans suffer from. ***
Those protections have added up to trillions of dollars in health benefits for our nation. Breathing cleaner air has kept people from needing expensive treatments and costly hospital stays. It has also kept our kids in school and our workers on the job, increasing productivity and economic potential. * * * For every one dollar we have spent, we get more than $40 of benefits in return. Say what you want about EPA’s business sense, but we know how to get a return on an investment. In short, the Clean Air Act is one of the most cost-effective things the American people have done for themselves in the last half century.
Critics had often complained about proposed regulations under the Clean Air Act and been proven wrong every time; businesses always find ways to meet the EPA restrictions. Without mentioning the law of diminishing returns or the possibility that manufacturing operations have been moving offshore due to increasingly stringent environmental requirements in the US, Jackson envisioned a no pain, all gain approach. Ibid.
[We] can absolutely grow our economy at the same time we protect our environment, our health, and safeguard the planet for the next generation.
Jackson moved on to Apple in 2013, probably at a higher salary. One observer speculated that Apple’s motive was not to give new direction to its environmental policies so much as to secure an interface with the EPA bureaucracy in DC. Tim Cook hires Lisa Jackson at Apple: It’s all about the bureaucracy, Tim Worstall, forbes.com, 5/29/13.
Jackson will ostensibly help Apple in dealing with the company’s effects on the environment in its manufacturing and product practices, an area of intense scrutiny for the company in recent years. “When you are large, if somebody is looking at something, you are going to be caught up in some way,” Cook said.
Who knows whether investors are paying attention, but Apple’s environmental policies boost its ESG (environmental, social and governance) standing versus 60 “peer companies.” While Apple reportedly scores lower than average for social and governance, however these qualities are measured, it is in the 96th percentile of the environmental category. Yahoo Finance, accessed 4/13/18.
Like Apple, many large companies have found it expedient to express support for government policies that would purportedly fight global warming. Such activity was particularly pronounced in the period leading up to negotiation of the Paris Climate Accord. Much ado about global warming, 10/26/15.
There has been a big push to line up private sector support for the campaign against global warming. On October 19, the White House announced that 81 companies – including Apple Computer, AT&T, Coca-Cola, General Electric, General Motors, IBM, Microsoft, and Wal-Mart - had signed an American Business Act on Climate pledge.
C. Apple’s actions – The most obvious way for Apple to migrate to 100% renewable energy would be to disconnect from the electric grid. It could generate all of its power needs from wind and solar installations, storing power in batteries as needed to make up for the fact that these energy sources are intermittent. As the majority of electrons flowing on the grid come from fossil fuel sources (including a declining but still substantial share from coal power), how could it otherwise be said Apple was meeting its 100% renewable objective?
Going off the grid would be costly, however, and Apple has taken a different tack. The basic point is that it has found ways to characterize power from the grid that is used to run its operations as being from renewable energy sources. The truth about Apple’s “100% renewable” energy usage, Alex Epstein, forbes.com, 1/8/16.
As the company’s own report admits, Apple’s data centers do in fact consume the standard blend of coal, natural gas, nuclear and hydro power--with a small amount of solar and wind mixed in. But the company literally pays other energy users to pretend that they only use coal, gas, and nuclear power so that Apple can claim to use only renewable power.
Thus, Apple has built some large solar power facilities, but it doesn’t necessarily use the solar power for its own operations. Ibid.
Instead, they feed the unreliable, stop-and-go power from their on-site solar panels into the local utility power network, making the system less reliable and more expensive. The solar power Apple produces is a parasite on the reliable local utility capacity, which has to serve as a host while Apple trades in its unreliable and expensive power for cheap and reliable power from all the nonrenewable power plants.
Apple’s renewable energy programs use “a diverse range of energy sources, including solar arrays and windfarms as well as emerging technologies like biogas fuel cells, micro-hydrogeneration systems and energy storage technologies.” These programs relate to the operation of “retail stores, offices, data centers and co-located facilities in 43 countries — including the United States, the United Kingdom, China and India.” The stated motivation is altruistic, i.e., “to combat climate change and create a healthier environment,” thus “leaving the world better than we found it.” Apple now globally powered by 100 percent renewable energy, press release, 4/9/18.
Another tool is renewable energy certificates from renewable power sales to the grid, which can be counted as offsets to purchases of fossil fuel power. Apple says it’s now powered completely by renewable energy, Devindra Hardawar, msn.com, 4/9/18.
An Apple representative tells us that it also relies on renewable energy certificates (or RECs) for around 34 percent of its usage, while the rest is made up from its own green projects. RECs allow companies to make up for their carbon usage by buying renewable energy. Apple is working towards covering all of its energy needs with its own solutions, the rep says.
Apple’s new headquarters complex will run on solar power coupled with power generated by an array of Bloom Energy fuel cells. The fuel cells will reportedly be more advanced than those that have been used in Delaware, and it is represented that they will run on biogas (e.g., methane obtained from decaying organic matter, etc., which would otherwise escape into the atmosphere). Notwithstanding CO2 emissions, therefore, the fuel cells would fit within the IEA’s previously cited definition of renewable energy. Apple, Home Depot turn to Bloom Energy as its tech advances, Kate Fehrenbacher, Fortune, 6/24/16.
The Fortune story suggests biogas may not be readily obtainable, however, and doesn’t discuss the relative cost of biogas and natural gas. Ibid.
. . . industry-watchers have questioned just how green Bloom’s power really is compared to energy from the power grid. Particularly if the power plant down the road also uses natural gas, and biogas can be incredibly difficult to procure.
Bloom Energy critic Lindsay Leveen, a thermodynamics expert in California, reports that commitments to run Bloom’s fuel cells on biogas at other installations have not always been honored. E-mails to numerous addressees, 4/11/18 & 4/12/18.
The Oakland station will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1,500 tons a year. Given the high cost of biogas the statement that $2 million in energy costs will be saved over 10 years is pure [baloney]. The biogas contract [in 2013] only lasted 5 years and is not being renewed. As a start the CPUC must claw back $2,100,000 from AC transit for the 420 kilowatt of Bloom Coffins that will no longer run on biogas.
D. Assessment – Is SAFE’s critique of Apple’s claims too harsh? Thirty-four comments had been posted on the previously cited Wall Street Journal article as of 4/14/18, most of which coincided with our reactions. PR drivel, a disservice to readers, big green lie, fake news, juveniles indulging in global warming fantasies, Apple should let voters decide about politics and stick to making great products.
One reader praised Apple’s tremendous accomplishment, however, and another said there is plenty of room for more renewable energy capacity and battery storage costs are dropping like a stone. A third reader likened Apple to a homeowner with solar panels who sends renewable power to the grid during the day, draws mixed power from the grid at night, and consumes zero carbon overall.
The first comment posted on the story, however, had pointed out a fallacy in the “net metering” argument.
What do you think would happen if every customer followed Apple's example and attempted to use the grid as a storage device? In many circumstances, there are large draws on the grid when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing. That is why baseload generation remains necessary to keep Apple in business.
While the grid can operate with some renewable power in the mix, we would add, the proliferation of wind, solar, etc. power (which isn’t cheaper than fossil fuel or installed nuclear power when capital costs are considered but has very low variable costs) can threaten the economic viability of the reliable power needed for a stable and affordable power grid. Government policies aimed at mandating or subsidizing ever-higher usage of renewable power should be ended before serious damage is done. Otherwise, subsidies for nuclear, coal, and eventually natural gas power plants will be necessary to offset misguided government support of wind and solar power. Reliable versus intermittent energy sources, 11/6/17.
Here are some recent reports that confirm the reality of our assessment:
*First Energy (an Ohio-based company) announced the planned closure of three of its nuclear power plants, two in Ohio and one in Pennsylvania, constituting 2/3 of its power plant fleet in 2017. The immediate competitive challenge was natural gas power plants, which have been able to underprice nuclear power plants as a result of cheap natural gas from the fracking boom. Pointing to the zero CO2 emissions from the nuclear plants, First Energy appealed to state officials for action that would make it possible to operate the nuclear plants profitably. Ohio utility plans to close three nuclear power plants, John Siciliano, Washington Examiner, 3/28/18.
*Notwithstanding the president’s rhetoric about saving the coal industry, premature closure or conversion of existing coal power plants appears to be accelerating. Some of the replacement capacity will be powered by natural gas, but wind and solar facilities will play a growing role in the mix. “In every corner of America – even conservative states without pro-renewable policies – utilities are choosing clean energy because closing coal saves customers money, improves their bottom line, and boosts grid flexibility.” Utilities closed dozens of coal plants in 2017, Silvio Marcacci, forbes.com, 12/18/17.
*Recent experience in New England provides little support for the notion that government officials, environmentalists, and special interests will readily accept adjustments to renewable energy policies that aren’t working well. The region has the highest electric power rates in the country, in part because of opposition to building natural gas pipelines that could be seen as validating the long-term use of this fuel. “Keep it in the ground!” Last winter, utilities had to burn a lot of “carbon-laden” oil to generate electric power, and even import LNG from Russia. New England faces “horror story” of expensive power, Josh Siegel, Washington Examiner, 4/10/18.
# Global warming because of the use of fossil fuel has become a religion. There is no way to change the minds of true believers through discussion. I think the best approach is to stop subsidizing these sources of energy; if they are so great let them compete in the free market. When the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine we will still need fossil fuel sources. We do not have the capacity to store renewable energy adequately for our needs when these sources are not available. – SAFE member (DE)
# Great job of raising questions about Apple's claims of being at 100% renewable, which fit the “hocus, pocus” title of this week’s e-mail. I read the "linked" article from the Washington Examiner about the precarious nature of the New England energy supply. It sounds like the politicians/environmentalists have their heads "in sand." The decisions they are making - or not making – are putting the public welfare at risk. – SAFE director
# Same phony claims for electric cars, which are supposedly zero emission but 80% of the electricity is generated by coal so who are they kidding? – SAFE director
# Thank you for this entry, with which I agree. Regrettably, I have no suggestions on how to "win them over." "There are none so blind as those who WILL not see." – Retired judge