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3 New Renewable Energy Studies: Garbage In, Garbage Out

Apr 22nd 2015 at 11:25 PM

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Somebody must have been handing out free cigars last week, because not one but three new renewable energy studies popped up in the US, and all three seek to undercut the economic evidence in favor of renewable energy. Considering the source of one of the studies, we're tempted to laugh the whole thing off, but let's take a closer look at all three and see what's going on.What Does "Smash The Watermelons" Even Mean?The first of the renewable studies that crossed our radar is from a nonprofit organization called Citizens Alliance for Responsible Energy (CARE).CARE has just released a white paper called Solar Power in the US: Lessons Learned and Guidance for Policymakers, which the group claims is aimed at educating "both consumers and lawmakers about the various consequences of using solar energy."For the sake of argument, we're going to go along with the white paper's basic contention, that there is some degree of fraud in the solar industry and therefore it should not benefit from taxpayer support. Fraud and other sketchy business practices exist in every sector of commerce, including the heavily subsidized fossil fuel industry, so let's call this one a draw for now.As to the white paper's accuracy, normally we would use professional affiliations and funding sources as a guideline, so we took a look at the paper. Unless we missed it, the white paper includes no funding disclosure other than attribution to CARE, so let's look a little more closely at CARE.The white paper notes up front that the founder of CARE is Mark E Mathis, "former TV anchor and radio talk show host," but it doesn't mention that Mathis was a consultant to the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico.As far as sciencey cred goes, Mathis also co-produced a film promoting "intelligent design," so there's that.The white paper also lists longtime motivational speaker Marita Noon as the Executive Director of CARE. Noon, who apparently has a history of making "ridiculous claims" about renewable energy, is also the Executive Director for the lobbying organization Energy Makes America Great, Inc., which describes itself as the "advocacy arm" for CARE.Since Noon's organization and CARE have both left the funding blanks for us to fill in, let's go back to CARE's website for some more insight into its educational aims.

CARE's "Smash the Watermelons" link does a good job of filling in the details (breaks added for readability, emphasis added just for the heck of it):At CARE we like the idea of a “Watermelon.” We, perhaps, have popularized, but did not create the moniker. We have received a positive response to “Green on the outside like environmentalism, red on the inside like neo-communism or neo-socialism.”We have bumper stickers that say, “Smash the Watermelons” and pens that are green on the outside that write with red ink. Both are very popular.Whatever label you like, keep in mind that we are talking about something bigger, something organized, and something with plans greater than saving polar bears or spotted owls. If you study the Watermelons–Big Green groups, the key players, their leadership, and their funding–you’ll find plans to fundamentally transform the United States of America.So, now that we know what "smash the watermelons" means, let's move on to the second of those renewable energy studies.The Louisiana Net Metering StudyThe second of our three renewable energy studies comes from Louisiana, where the state's solar industry is up in arms over an "unorthodox" net metering study produced for the Louisiana Public Service Commission.

The study purports to show that net metering is a money-losing venture.The Gulf States Renewable Energy Industries Association (GSREIA) came out swinging against the report with a long list of problems dealing with substance, including the skipping-over of relevant data.Aside from issues with the analysis itself, the selection process for Acadian Consulting Group -; the consulting firm that prepared the report -; also raised red flags for the region's solar industry.You can find more details about the controversial selection of Acadian for the net metering study in an article from E&E Publishing last summer, which has been reposted with permission by the Louisiana State University's Center for Energy Studies.According to E&E, David Dismukes -; the executive director of the Center for Energy Studies -; is also a founder of Acadian Consulting Group, which GSREIA asserts has established an open "bias against renewable energy."GSREIA also asserts that Dismukes personally has a history of lobbying against renewable energy subsidies while simultaneously making the case for enhancing fossil fuel subsidies.So, if you're looking for an unbiased study about the effects of net metering, this one doesn't seem to make the cut.The Koch-Funded Wind Energy StudyWe'll go to Kansas for the third renewable energy study, which was produced by Randy Simmons, a "Koch Scholars" Professor at Utah State University. This one attempted to show that wind energy is a money loser for Kansas and other states.Since "Koch" is right up there in bright lights, we'll take this one with a grain of salt right off the bat. In addition, aside from the Utah State affiliation, Simmons is also a Senior Fellow at PERC, the Property and Environment Research Center, which receives substantial funding from Koch-connected foundations. So there's that.The American Wind Energy Association's Into the Wind has a detailed critique of Simmons's study, but the gist of the problem is that Simmons relied on outdated figures for the cost of wind energy:...

When major errors in the study’s methods are corrected, the study’s results actually confirm that state Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards (RPS) like those in Kansas create hundreds of jobs and save consumers tens of millions of dollars.[snip]The Koch study’s use of outdated wind cost data is a great illustration of the maxim “garbage in, garbage out,” as a single incorrect input assumption completely changes the model result.Renewable Energy Studies: It's All About DisclosureIndustry funding for energy studies cuts across both renewables and fossils, so the core issue isn't about where the money is coming from. It's more a matter of disclosure.The big dust-up over undisclosed fossil fuel funding behind findings reported by climate change denier Willie Soon provides an example.

His Ivy League background notwithstanding, Professor Soon worked independently and his climate change studies were not funded through his institutional affiliates, Harvard and The Smithsonian Institute.That's why, when it comes to reporting on energy studies, we're more likely to put our confidence in works that carry the weight of actual professional affiliations in addition to disclosure of funding sources.For that matter, none of the three reports touched on the 800-pound gorilla in the room -; namely, the benefits of renewable energy in the context of risk avoidance and improved public health resulting from reduced dependence on fossil fuels.Feel free to disagree with these findings, but last year MIT announced a renewable energy study demonstrating that cap-and-trade carbon emissions strategies return significant economic benefits in the form of improved community health.For the record, MIT notes that the study was funded by the Science to Achieve Results program of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

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