There are a lot of good reasons to be suspicious of regulators who claim to be guardians of the truth, but every now and then they get something right. The United Kingdom’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA, http://www.asa.org.uk) is that country’s equivalent of the Federal Trade Commission, with jurisdiction over false advertising. Last month, the ASA reached a settlement with the British Wind Energy Association acting as agent for the country’s wind generators. Two months earlier, a local anti-wind group filed a complaint at the ASA against Npower, a subsidiary of Germany’s RWE. Npower’s advertising claimed that every kilowatt-hour of wind power displaced 860 grams of CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel power plants. The ASA determined that the amount was badly overstated. It found that the most inefficient coal-burning generators still in service in fact produced 860 grams, but the nation’s entire fleet (not including nuclear units) produced on average only 430 grams, half of the claimed figure. The government’s current plans are for the power industry to cut 200 million tons of carbon emissions by 2020, meaning that 50,000 wind turbines must be built by then. (Only 2,389 of them are currently in place.) Under the new advertising rules, the public will learn that twice the new wind capacity at twice the cost will be needed to get to the emissions reduction goal.
The ASA has also taken on the claims of sustainability seen so often nowadays. In August 2008 World Wildlife Fund UK challenged two claims in a Shell ad:  By exploiting Canadian oil sands with its new technology, the company was helping to provide a sustainable future; and  Expanding the capacity of its Port Arthur, Texas, refinery was “helping sustainable energy production.” Shell correctly noted a consensus that, even if investment in renewables continued its upward trend, fossil energy would dominate the market and grow in absolute terms for some time to come, then somehow concluded that its investments would somehow get us closer to a sustainable future. The ASA rejected the ad on grounds that both projects increased the size of Shell’s carbon footprint, noting that the company provided no evidence that its carbon or other emissions would reach sustainable levels (however defined) in the foreseeable future. I have nothing against Shell producing hydrocarbons, but I would welcome a prohibition on specious claims of sustainability.
As far as I know, no one in the U.S. has ever complained about false statements of fact by renewables advocates or claims of sustainability by anyone. But imagine the future of the Pickens Plan or sustainability in a more transparent world.
Guest blogger Robert Michaels is a professor of economics at California State University, Fullerton. http://business.fullerton.edu/Economics/rmichaels/030131%20stars/index.html