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Efficacy of carbon offsets: Part One

One glorious mid-March morning while attempting to avoid rush-hour traffic in Solano County, I turned left when I should have turned right. I found my car surrounded by vibrant emerald hills — out of which arose a forest of towering wind turbines. I reveled in their majesty, while noting small flocks of sheep grazing beneath.

I caught sight of a pickup truck and waved the driver down. After asking for directions, I thought to query him about this unique situation. The sheep were his. The turbines belonged to Nextera. They all happily co-exist on land rented from an unidentified third party.

Then the rancher voiced questions of his own regarding the economic viability of the wind farm. He was under the impression that — given the unsteady nature of wind — PGE was unable to utilize any of the energy being generated by Nextera’s turbines.

My journalist ears perked up. Is this a unique, local problem? Or is the irregular nature of wind an obstacle to the usefulness of wind power technology as a whole? Has our society invested hope and money in a futile system of energy production? Are we purchasing carbon offsets in a technology that simply doesn’t work?

According to the rancher, Nextera is rumored to be in the process of creating storage batteries as well as developing an experimental power-generating facility that uses the batteries to capture intermittent energy produced through a combination of wind and solar. I felt compelled to investigate.

Neither Nextera or PGE returned my calls.

So I turned to other agencies to establish whether wind power is living up to its promise.

Ashland’s Electricity Director Thomas McBartlett was very helpful.

Bonneville Power Administration — via which Ashland is contracted to receive electricity until 2028 — generates energy through multiple sources, mostly hydropower (86.5%) and nuclear power (8.75%). Wind farms located in the Columbia Plateau do, in fact, account for a tiny percentage of the mix (less than 1%).

McBartlett directed me to the Oregon Department of Energy (ODOE). From there, Rachel Wray graciously linked me to several reports that laid out Oregon’s complex energy system.

In brief, both wind and solar are considered “clean” sources of electricity, in as much as they do not directly release greenhouse gas emissions. But in reality, they are both problematic, since they rely upon changeable weather conditions and therefor generate “intermittent” levels of energy.

Since electric companies have to deliver power to customers according to demand, energy derived from wind is combined with electricity produced through hydropower, coal, nuclear, natural gas, biomass, geothermal and more.

ODOE estimates only 6.5% of Oregon’s electricity comes from wind power.

Wray put a positive spin on this, noting in a broader context that these figures indicate Oregon is on a trajectory toward its goal of exclusively relying upon renewable energy.

However, at the moment, when wind turbines produce more energy than is needed at a given time, many providers of electricity are, in fact, releasing the unused excess.

Companies are working on new technologies to change that but not without difficulties.

ODOE’s Biennial Energy Report states: “At this point, the development of more flexible renewable resources involves significant costs and uncertainties to overcome technical, financial, legal, and regulatory barriers.” (https://bit.ly/2CL0OmA).

One method by which extra wind power is currently being employed is to move water from beneath hydroelectric dams to the reservoir above, so it can be recycled down through turbines when customers require electricity.

Additionally, General Electric recently has invented a wind tower that contains batteries which store excess energy. And, as the rancher rightly understood, Nextera, in partnership with several other companies, has received approval from Salem to construct a wind-solar-battery facility on the Columbia Plateau.

From an ecological standpoint, intermittency is not wind power’s only disadvantage.

While its direct emissions are carbon-free, undetermined upstream GHG emissions are generated through mining, and manufacture of the towers. Furthermore, large amounts of methane gas are released when soil is disturbed during the excavation of installation sites.

Then, there are the expenses involved. According to Conserve Energy Future’s website: “The commercial wind turbine cost is about $1 million-$2 million a MW nameplate capacity installed, and if you buy the same turbine in 2 MW, its cost would be about $2.8 million.”

Towers are designed to last only 20-25 years before needing to be replaced.

If wind power is only producing 6.5% of Oregon’s energy per annum, one has to question whether wind farms are a practical investment for a green economy.

So who is paying for all this pricey experimentation? Funds come from state tax concessions, corporate outlays, charges to consumers, and investments from a group of nonprofits whose task it is to sell carbon offsets to the public. Per Oregon’s regulation, these nonprofits take in money, keep 20% for themselves, then have two years to invest in some type of renewable energy project.

If I sound skeptical about the providers of offsets, that is because I am. While researching this column, I found I am not alone in my thinking. Several authors, among them George Monbiot, liken carbon offsets to medieval Catholic “indulgences,” which were a means through which guilt-ridden sinners could buy their way into Heaven. This practice so infuriated Martin Luther, he started the Reformation (https://bit.ly/2OCQxh6).

In Part Two of this article, I will consider pros and cons of the Carbon Offset program.

In the meantime:

  • Act from a place of wisdom and rational analysis, rather than out of guilt.
  • Realize that every product or technology you use, even those that don’t directly emit greenhouse gases (e.g. wind power or electric cars), carry upstream emissions generated in the production of equipment.
  • Please do what you can to reduce emissions in your personal lifestyle, but don’t beat yourself up. There are no perfect choices.

More to come. ...

Ashland resident, author and anthropologist Nina Egert has been a lay environmentalist since the early 1970s.

Photo by Nina Egert Sheep near a wind farm in California.
Courtesy of the Oregon Department of Energy