Will corporate and government green-washing save Earth from inflated or phony eco scares?
I’d just passed the local Starbucks in Chicago, when my cell phone buzzed to say the Washington, DC City Council had unanimously agreed “in a preliminary vote” to require that 100% of the District’s electricity must come from renewable sources by 2032. How can they put hundreds of wind turbines and solar arrays in DC, or get only renewable electrons from the wind-solar-fossil-nuclear grid? I wondered.
Then, just a few hours later, I received an email from a marketing and public relations firm. “Starbucks IL Stores Going 100 Percent Renewable,” it announced. The email and a related news release explained that Starbucks has entered into an agreement to power some 340 company-operated Illinois neighborhood coffee shops (plus the future Chicago coffee bean Roastery) entirely with renewable wind energy.
The electricity will be generated by the soon-to-be-completed HillTopper wind project in Logan County, about 150 miles southwest of Chicago. HillTopper is operated by Enel Green Power North America, but the Starbucks deal also involves a separate agreement with Exelon Corporation subsidiary Constellation.
The project’s nameplate capacity totals 185 megawatts; once fully operational, HillTopper will be able to generate 570 gigawatt-hours of electricity annually … under optimal wind conditions. The Starbucks-Enel-Constellation arrangement will involve 48,000 megawatt-hours of wind power annually – “enough to brew nearly 100 million cups of coffee” in the Illinois shops – the memos state.
All these numbers certainly get confusing – an unavoidable problem with wind (and solar) energy, largely due to its notoriously intermittent, unreliable, weather-dependent nature. The problem is also irrelevant to issues that are central to all “renewable” energy and their conjoined “Save the Earth” campaigns.
The fundamental, though diligently ignored reality is that nothing about wind (or solar) energy is renewable or sustainable. Breezes and sunlight are certainly renewable, if inconstant, and free. But their energy is highly diffused and dispersed – the very opposite of densely packed coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear fuels. And the complex systems needed to harness “free” wind power are anything but free.
Major wind projects like HillTopper require scores base that can reach 100 feet below the surface, a 400-foot-tall tower, a monstrous nacelle and generator, and 215-foot-long blades. They kill raptors, other birds and bats by the thousands. And every “wind farm” requires 100% backup by coal or gas-fired power plants that run 24/7/365 on “spinning reserve,” ready to power up every time the wind dies down.
During a nasty heat wave in 2012, northern Illinois electricity demand averaged 22,000 megawatts, but turbines generated a miserly 4 MW. Try brewing coffee in 340 Starbucks shops on 4 megawatts, especially while operating the lights, refrigerators, AC and computer hookups on that piddling electricity.
The backup units require only a few hundred acres, but they also require extra costs, materials and fuels – which means you need expensive duplicate energy systems. That is not renewable or sustainable, either.
Briefly analyzing the life-cycle, cradle-to-grave, global aspects of a wind project and its fossil fuel backup power plants – to assess their “climate friendliness,” renewability and sustainability – requires reviewing the fuels and raw materials needed to manufacture, install and maintain both systems.
Coal and gas power plants require enormous amounts of concrete, steel, copper and other materials, reflecting their energy output. Wind turbine towers and bases require thousands of tons of concrete and steel; rotor blades are made from fiberglass, carbon fibers and petroleum resins; nacelles from petroleum composites; generators and magnets from steel, copper, rare earth metals and multiple other materials. Transmission lines need steel, concrete, copper and plastic. Not one of these materials is renewable.
Extracting ores for these metals, limestone for concrete, petroleum for resins and composites, requires removing billions of tons of rock, processing and smelting ores into usable metals, refining crude oil, and manufacturing everything into finished products. Every step in those processes requires fossil fuels. You cannot make even one wind turbine with wind energy – or transport a turbine … or coffee beans … with wind (or solar) energy.
A single HillTopper-sized wind turbine contains about 800 pounds of neodymium, 130 pounds of dysprosium, other rare earth elements, and tons of other metals. If you want to use rechargeable batteries, instead of coal or gas backup units, you need lanthanum, specialized rare earth alloys, lithium, nickel, cadmium and assorted other metals – in massive quantities.
Many of those metals come primarily from China, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other places where child labor is common, adults earn a few dollars a day, and health, safety and environmental rules are all but nonexistent. They’re the renewable energy equivalent of “blood diamonds” and slave labor.
All this raises some awkward but vital questions that customers, journalists, regulators and politicians might want to ask Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, former CEO and now executive chairman Howard Schultz, board chairman Myron Ullman, vice chair Mellody Hobson, and local franchise owners.
* Will Starbucks Illinois stores actually get electricity from HillTopper? Will transmission lines run directly from the Enel wind turbines to each Starbucks store? If not, how will Enel separate wind-generated electrons from the renewable-fossil-hydro-nuclear mixture on the regional grid?
* Since neither of those options is viable, will stores just get fancy certificates, attesting that equivalent amounts of electricity were transmitted from HillTopper to some customers somewhere in the state?
* What will power the shops when the wind isn’t blowing? If the HillTopper electricity is used to brew 100,000,000 cups of coffee a year, what’s left for lights, heat, AC, the Chicago Roastery and so on?
* How is it possibly “renewable” or “climate friendly” energy, if the turbines, transmission lines, backup batteries and backup fossil fuel power plants all require numerous non-renewable raw materials and fuels? How does your 100% renewable pledge factor in the fossil fuels needed to build all those components?
* How will your shops function without fossil fuels for plastic cups, tables, chairs, display cases and counter tops; paints and cleaners; ships and trucks to haul coffee beans; and factories to make all this stuff?
* How is it ethical, moral or “social justice” to get your electricity from slave and child laborers, who risk their health and lives in filthy, toxic pits, under few or no health or safety standards? Will you demand better, safer, more environmentally sound practices in those countries? If so, how might autocratic rulers in those countries react to those campaigns – and impact your business and profits there?
* Will Starbucks require that Enel Green Power allow independent biologists on its HillTopper sites, to determine precisely and honestly how many birds and bats are butchered by turbine blades every year – and prevent company or hired personnel from burying carcasses or letting scavengers haul them off?
* How is it ethical for highly profitable companies like Starbucks, Enel and Constellation to profit from a wind energy system that exists only because of government mandates and taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies? How is it ethical to launch slick PR campaigns to get glowing press coverage for doing so?
* Even with subsidies, wind-based electricity (with its essential battery or fossil fuel backup systems) is more expensive than conventional power. Will the higher electricity costs be passed on to Starbucks customers – or will Illinois ratepayers in general be saddled with higher prices?
* What climate benefits will come from this? Asian and African countries have more than 1,500 new coal-fired power plants under construction or in planning. Assuming for the moment that carbon dioxide actually is the primary force in climate change – how many thousandths of one degree less global warming will the Starbucks Illinois wind energy program result in? Who made that calculation for you?
It’s hard not to view this “100% renewable electricity” campaign as little more than a very clever public relations and virtue-signaling exercise, presented to friendly media to garner accolades the companies really don’t deserve. It will be interesting to see how company officials answer questions like these.
Paul Driessen is senior policy analyst for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow and author of books, studies and articles on energy, climate change, the environment and human rights.