The more people know about the wind-energy business, the less they like it. And when it comes to lousy wind deals, General Electric’s Shepherds Flat project in northern Oregon is a real stinker.
I’ll come back to the GE project momentarily. Before getting to that, please ponder that first sentence. It sounds like a claim made by an anti-renewable-energy campaigner. It’s not. Instead, that rather astounding admission was made by a communications strategist during a March 23 webinar sponsored by the American Council on Renewable Energy called “Speaking Out on Renewable Energy: Communications Strategies for the Renewable Energy Industry.”
During the webinar, Justin Rolfe-Redding, a doctoral student from the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, discussed ways for wind-energy proponents to get their message out to the public. Rolfe-Redding said that polling data showed that “after reading arguments for and against wind, wind lost support.” He went on to say that concerns about wind energy’s cost and its effect on property values “crowded out climate change” among those surveyed.
The most astounding thing to come out of Rolfe-Redding’s mouth — and yes, I heard him say it myself — was this: “The things people are educated about are a real deficit for us.” After the briefings on the pros and cons of wind, said Rolfe-Redding, “enthusiasm decreased for wind. That’s a troubling finding.” The solution to these problems, said Rolfe-Redding, was to “weaken counterarguments” against wind as much as possible. He suggested using “inoculation theory” by telling people that “wind is a clean source, it provides jobs” and adding that “it’s an investment in the future.” He also said that proponents should weaken objections by “saying prices are coming down every day.”
It’s remarkable to see how similar the arguments being put forward by wind-energy proponents are to those that the Obama administration is using to justify its support of Solyndra, the now-bankrupt solar company that got a $529 million loan guarantee from the federal government. But in some ways, the government support for the Shepherds Flat deal is worse than what happened with Solyndra.
The majority of the funding for the $1.9 billion, 845-megawatt Shepherds Flat wind project in Oregon is coming courtesy of federal taxpayers. And that largesse will provide a windfall for General Electric and its partners on the deal who include Google, Sumitomo, and Caithness Energy. Not only is the Energy Department giving GE and its partners a $1.06 billion loan guarantee, but as soon as GE’s 338 turbines start turning at Shepherds Flat, the Treasury Department will send the project developers a cash grant of $490 million.
The deal was so lucrative for the project developers that last October, some of Obama’s top advisers, including energy-policy czar Carol Browner and economic adviser Larry Summers, wrote a memo saying that the project’s backers had “little skin in the game” while the government would be providing “a significant subsidy (65+ percent).” The memo goes on to say that, while the project backers would only provide equity equal to about 11 percent of the total cost of the wind project, they would receive an “estimated return on equity of 30 percent.”
The memo continues, explaining that the carbon dioxide reductions associated with the project “would have to be valued at nearly $130 per ton for CO2 for the climate benefits to equal the subsidies.” The memo continues, saying that that per-ton cost is “more than 6 times the primary estimate used by the government in evaluating rules.”