News on the renewable energy front has been a mixed bag for advocates this week. Fortunately, while some of the initial headlines were unsettling, as the week went on, even stories critical of renewable energy ultimately resulted in conclusions that underscored the sector’s value to the economy, the nation’s energy security and to the environment.
No story could better demonstrate the failure of some in the mainstream media to grasp the most fundamental economics of biofuels and their impact on world markets than a New York Times article last Sunday that somehow attributed poverty and food scarcity in Guatemala to ethanol production here in the United States. The article tracks a long-discredited assertion made years ago when increased U.S. ethanol production was tied to “tortilla riots” in Mexico, where consumers reacted to rising prices for a food staple there.
However, the ink on the Times story was barely dry before the errant story was countered with facts from experts both inside and outside the biofuels industry who quickly went about showing there was little merit to the story’s premise and reinforcing the benefits of renewable fuels.
Geoff Cooper, a vice president for the Renewable Fuels Association, was quick to point out the huge deficiencies in the Times piece, noting, among other discrepancies, that tortillas in Guatemala are made from white corn, while U.S. ethanol is produced from No. 2 yellow corn. As was pointed out during the Mexican incident years ago, the two types of corn have different global markets, demand drivers, and price pressures. As Cooper notes, “It is entirely disingenuous to suggest stronger demand and tighter supplies of No. 2 yellow corn in the U.S. are significantly influencing local white corn prices in Guatemala.”
And it should also be noted that Guatemalan farmers are harvesting more corn than in the past, including 850,000 hectares in 2012, a total that USDA says is that nation’s second-highest level in history and that corn imports there have remained steady.
Another headline actually offered good news, and though the story had more to do with the oil industry, it supported the need for more renewables in the U.S. transportation fuel supply.
A Shell drilling rig that ran aground on the rocky shore of the Gulf of Alaska was towed safely to shore this week. Early indications are that the rig spilled no oil. But the apparatus, which runs 266 feet in diameter, is one of two rigs the major oil company put in play to try and open up Arctic waters to oil production.
Of course, the incident is hardly comparable to the disastrous events in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, or even several smaller spills that have been reported over the past three years. But it does raise another red flag showing that oil production is a high-risk business in which a single mistake, particularly in environmentally fragile areas, can result in the loss of millions of dollars, thousands of jobs and huge damages to needed ecosystems.
The Shell drilling rig incident once again reinforces the need for a diverse supply of energy resources, including those that can be sustainably produced domestically, including biofuels, without fear of catastrophic consequences.
Stories more bracing to the renewable energy sector emerged this week centered on investments by big names in the U.S. economic arena in alternative energy endeavors.
SunPower Corp announced the sale of two California solar projects to an energy company owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. will pay SunPower up to $2.5 billion for the 579-megawatt (MW) Antelope Valley solar projects. Mid-American will also design, install and construct the projects, which represent what officials say will be the world’s largest photovoltaic power development. Construction is set to begin this spring and the projects are scheduled for completion by the end of 2015.
Elsewhere, Internet search giant Google, long known for strong investments in the renewable sector, put up a $200 million equity investment in a wind farm in West Texas that will power more than 60,000 homes. The 161-megawatt Spinning Spur Wind Project, with 70 2.3-MW turbines, recently went into full-time operation.
Though different in their subject matter and approach to renewable energy, the stories all shine a light on the sector and put a focus on the need for a diverse, stable, comprehensive and long-term national approach to the nation’s energy needs. The 25x’25 Alliance encourages policy makers to look beyond the headlines and, instead, focus on the underlying message: with proper policy direction, renewable energy will boost our economy, enhance our energy security and improve our environment.