Friday, June 01, 2007

Windy Whingers

Oh wow. It's almost uncanny. I spend yesterday ranting about how energy companies are almost by definition a gang of blowhards and hypocrites, and along comes a really lazy article from the New York Times to provide us with a chance to watch them at work.

It's entitled "Where Now, for the Wind?", the New York Times reminds us that its journalists are hyper-educated hemigods with a long lede that tilts at a Don Quixote reference (I didn't even get paid for that one). After a little bit of scene-setting, just below a picture that tries, but fails, to provide a convincing alternative to the cliched wind farm shot, the article settles in to the same lazy groove that any writer combining business and green energy slides into.

And just as the cows shelter in the shadows of the turbines to escape the hot sun, a growing number of copycat companies are lining up to imitate the big bet by this company, based in Juno Beach, Fla., that wind power can work as well for shareholders as it does for environmentalists.

This idea that green energy is a preserve of idealists and hippies that capitalism stumbled upon this year is wrong-headed and patronising. It ignores the huge R&D subsidies that business has sucked up over the years, the tax-credits for alternative fuels that go back to the 1980s, and the share price and reputational benefits of an interest in green technologies.

A decade ago, when many other utilities viewed wind as a half-baked idea for tree huggers, executives of the FPL Group cast an accountant’s eye on the prospect of further developing wind power.

What our poor reporter, who is obviously confused and frightened about the economics of power generation, presumably meant was, "A decade ago, when the cost of wind turbines per kilowatt was so high that making a meaningful return before tax was impossible, FPL stumbled upon the technology during its eternal quest to keep its profits out of the hands of the IRS." Only it came out like the big strong capitalist zoomed in to save the feckless hippies.

FPL's an interesting outfit, pretty well-run, and not known for its friendliness towards business reporters. If I didn't know better, I'd say that our friends at the American Wind Energy Association were responsible for setting this up, because screw me if the article didn't manage to touch on a lot of their talking points.

1) Hey, we may be capitalists, and very smart, motivated ones at that, but we care!
2) We still simply cannot get along without massive tax subsidies
3) The prices of wind turbines are too high
4) Horrid local communities simply do not understand the benefits of wind turbines. Aren't they pretty?

What we don't get are the more interesting bits of the story. How investment banks are making huge profits from buying and selling wind power (ask Goldman Sachs how much of a premium it makes from buying low from wind producers). How only large US corporations can benefit from these tax breaks, and how transferring these breaks to larger corporations requires an army of bankers and lawyers. How FPL has had to guarantee to the banks that finance its wind farms that it will make good any losses in the event the tax breaks end.

Our reporter seems confused about where gas comes from, and how it makes electricity:

Wind now represents 12 percent of the FPL Group’s diversified energy portfolio and it is growing along with natural gas and nuclear — other bets that the threat of climate change will increasingly determine what utilities can and cannot build to meet electricity demand.

Presumably he was huffing glue during chemistry, because while I can just about stomach the idea that nuclear is relatively carbon neutral (its flaws lie elsewhere), I don't see how a hydrocarbon formed over millions of years by geological activity, hauled out of deposits concentrated in the Middle East, hauled over to the US, and burned to produce water, carbon dioxide and kinetic energy is green just because it isn't called oil.

The fact that FPL doesn't burn coal has a lot to do with the fact that Florida doesn't have much, although I'll grant you it doesn't have much wind either. The reporter does get some amusing bits of dirt about the apparently topsy-turvy FPL of the early part of the decade (it was just fine, it just couldn't find anyone else to merge with).

So we have the guy who left after having an affair in 2000, and then just afterwards we have the idea that FPL saw the light and abandoned gas-fired plants in favour of wind after previously pursuing wind. i think we're meant to link this departed adulterous, and unnamed executive with the failed strategy. Problem is, FPL was building plenty of gas-fired projects in the late 90s, and built a couple of big wind farms in 2001-2, at the same time as it was pursuing an (admittedly accident-prone) gas plant building programme. In 2001 it did the biggest financing ever for wind energy projects.

So as you can tell, I don't like FPL and I don't like sanctimonious wind producers.


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