A Bit of Wind

From Yahoo News:

“Natural-food grocer Whole Foods Market Inc. said Tuesday it will rely on wind energy for all of its electricity needs, making it the largest corporate user of renewable energy in the United States.”

I rather like Whole Foods. I was shopping there when they were nothing but a slightly seedy hippy store in downtown Austin. I don’t begrudge Whole Foods doing what it can to sell itself as an eco-friendly company. Their upper income, over-educated target demographic is more than willing to pay a premium in return for getting a warm fuzzy feeling that they are helping the environment. However, this story reveals all the serious delusions about “alternative” energy that are systematically warping all our political debates about energy policy.

The biggest delusion is the belief that anyone, anywhere can run any kind of on-demand production or distribution system using solar or wind power. There is not a single factory, farm or transportation system anywhere that runs exclusively off solar or wind power. None, nada, zip. The reason for this is simple: the sun goes down, the wind doesn’t blow all the time and we have no efficient electricity storage technology. Solar and wind power simply can’t provide power in a reliable manner.

The actual electricity that will power Whole Foods stores, offices, distribution and productions facilities will not actually originate in wind farms. Instead, they will use a system of vouchers that will effectively subsidize other people’s use of wind power when it is available. It’s all an accounting trick. Most of the power that Whole Foods will use will come from burning coal and natural gas just as it always has. Of course, this will increase the overall amount of wind power used over the entire grid but the wind power will always be a minor adjunct to the real energy sources. The grid will always have to have enough excess capacity to completely replace wind power when it inevitably drops offline.

Unfortunately, politically significant numbers of people will believe that Whole Foods is literally running their entire operation off of wind power and they will demand that government force other companies to do the same. In the debate over global warming, they will resist real-world solutions like nuclear power because the example of Whole Foods will convince them that windmills work just as well as nukes.

Whole Foods is a great grocery store (if you can afford them), but as the pied-pipers of a grownup energy policy, they suck.

17 thoughts on “A Bit of Wind”

  1. or “Whole Paycheck” as we laughingly call it. They’re building one less than two blocks from where I live—easy walking distance. Now there’s an energy saving.

  2. I was just in a Whole Foods for the first time a couple of months ago. You’ve characterized it perfectly.

    I will say this: they have a great bakery (with excellent 10,000 calorie per bite chocolate pastries) and some pretty good freshly prepared foods to go. Bought some hand made candy canes there over the holidays ($2.50 each) and gave them away. And if you like imported cheese, and money is no object, well then…

  3. I love the use of wind vouchers. I hate the deceptive description.

    Oh, and I thought James Taranto (opinionjournal.com) made a brilliant observation: Whole Foods regional president Michael Besancon said they want to “help convince a customer to drive past three or four other supermarkets on the way to Whole Foods.” Yeah, we promote energy conservation by convincing people to drive farther to come to our store.

  4. Although my friends and I jokingly refer to it as “[W]Hole-in-Your-Wallet Foods,” I like Whole Foods. I’m what you might call a “crunchy libertarian,” so it pleased me to hear that the head of Whole Foods is a libertarian, too. Anyone know if that’s true? The magazines on sale near the check-out counters in Whole Foods all appear to be leftist, for whatever that’s worth. But what really interests me is your description of Whole Foods’ clientele as “over-educated.” I’ve heard that expression a lot–sometimes applied to me–and I’ve never quite “gotten” it. As someone who has striven his whole life to acquire as much knowledge as possible, I am all too cognizant of how little, at age 55, I actually know compared to all that there is to know. Maybe you can enlighten me. There is “educated,” which is presumably good, and then there is “over-educated,” which is presumably bad. (At least I’ve never heard the term used in a complimentary fashion, and when used in conversation there is often a derisive tone in the user’s voice.) At which point does “educated” become “over-educated,” and why is crossing that point a bad thing? Just asking–on behalf of all us allegedly “over-educated” folk. To me there’s no such thing as “too much” education, but perhaps this is a gap in my own education that needs to be repaired. (Provided, of course, repairing it doesn’t push me from “educated” into “over-educated.”)

  5. I’m also not sure wind power is efficient, what is the cost of production (is it even possible to manufacture windmills by using wind power in the manufacturing porcess?)?

    The owner pointed out that it was not a cost based decision, it was purely to drive sales.

  6. Chel,

    “Wait, so do you have a problem with an individual company to decide to use voucher wind energy?”

    My problem is that this is an accounting gimmick that doesn’t actually lead to Whole Foods utilizing electricity generated from wind power. Its the technological equivalent of paying someone to go to the gym in your stead and then making a big deal about much you exercise.

    As a marketing gimmick it doesn’t bother me but like I said it will reinforce the widespread delusional belief that wind and solar power can provide significant amounts of power and that we should base our energy policy on that premise.

  7. Bilwick,

    “I am all too cognizant of how little, at age 55, I actually know compared to all that there is to know.”

    Then you aren’t over-educated because the hallmark of over-education is intellectual hubris.

    Over-educated is a tongue-and-cheek name for an actual marketing demographic whose technical name escapes me at the moment. It is based on the observation that as an individuals level of education in the humanities increases they become MORE likely to believe in phenomenon such as UFO as space aliens, past lives, astrology, etc. They are novelty seeking, fad following, and upper income, making them a marketers dream. Appeal to their intellectual and moral vanity and you can sell them just about anything.

    “To me there’s no such thing as “too much” education…”

    That depends on what the education actually was. To use an extreme example, people who studied economics, history, sociology, psychology etc in the Soviet Union received an extensive “education” in complex baroque theories that were entirely useless in the real world. It is quite easy to get a weaker version of that kind of education in the post-modernist influenced colleges of today.

    I am continually gobsmacked by the lack of basic scientific literacy exhibited by otherwise articulate “well-educated” people. Worse, these people often lack any awareness of the boundaries of their own ignorance precisely because they do have such extensive educations and are self-evidently very bright people.

    A real education makes you humble if not actually afraid. Over-education make you arrogant.

  8. The people you use as examples of being “over-educated,” SL, strike me as being more accurately categorized as “wrongly educated” (e.g. the Russians getting inculcated with bogus scientific theories) or “not educated enough” (e.g., the people who might benefit from knowledge in fields outside the humanities). This may seem like a hair-splitting quibble, but it seems like an important distinction to me. But thanks for your definition of “over-education.” It seems more idiosyncratic than, shall we say, “Websterian;” but as far as I know there is no dictionary definition of the term, so I guess yours has as much validity as anyone else’s. I first heard the term about thirty years ago, and the speaker didn’t seem to be implying anything about belief in UFOs, astrology, etc. He was a supervisor at work (“work” being the customer service department of a book-publishing firm), a bright guy, fairly articulate, but lacking much formal education and with a strong streak of resentment toward people who’d graduated from college. I was one of several recently-graduated liberal arts majors who reported to him, and he half-jokingly grumbled about having to work with a “bunch of over-educated college boys.” Since then I have heard the phrase used in similar contexts, and in recent years (as use of the phrase has grown more frequent), I’ve started asking people who use it to define what they mean by it. The more common definition seems to be “educated beyond one’s station”–one’s “station” being defined, of course, in terms of one’s job. I confess this bothers me because it smacks of a kind of old British Empire classism: Musn’t have the lower orders getting educated beyond their station, don’t you know? As one of the ninety per-cent of the Baby Boomers who didn’t, despite the media stereotype, become corporate yuppies in the Eighties, I see no reason why, if circumstances force me to work as, say, a goatherd, I must consign myself to having a goatherd’s education.

  9. Bilwick,

    The people you use as examples of being “over-educated,” SL, strike me as being more accurately categorized as “wrongly educated”

    Well thats the question isn’t it? I would say that the salient indicator of over-education is love of theory over practical experience. That was the problem of Soviet education where all precepts had to conform to global theory. I suspect your former supervisor experienced this collision time and time again as new graduates well versed in generalized theories met up with the inelegant gritty details of real world management.

    I have never heard of over-educated meaning beyond one station in life but given my cultural milieu I am unlikely to have done so. I can see it used as a synonym for “over qualified” for a particular job. I am always surprised at the number of very bright and articulate people you find working in coffee shops, books stores. etc who clearly have advanced educations which they aren’t using.

  10. Is it possible to be under-educated? Of course it is. Is it possible to be optimally educated? I think so, but only as a snapshot in time. I’m optimally educated as a network administrator if I know and understand all the technologies that I need to work with and have maximized my earnings potential based on the education that I have. It makes no sense for me to go to school to learn COBOL, for instance, because that’s just thousands of dollars and too many wasted hours learning something that I’m just not going to use. If I take that COBOL course anyway, I am, in a real sense, overeducated. Somebody else taking that course would not be because they’d actually use the knowledge.

  11. TM,
    I seems to me that you might be able to call yourself “prepared” (and, everyting else being equal, more valuable) rather than “over-educated” unless you can guarantee you’ll never ever have to utilize or interpret COBOL.

  12. And is the usefulness of knowledge in a job the best criterion? I have read about the “hedgerow” schools of old Ireland, wherein Catholic priests illegally tutored Catholic peasant children away from the eyes of the Anglican/English authorities. Much of the education was classical. In fact, I read of one upper-caste English visitor to Ireland who expressed complete astonishment that poor farmers could speak Greek and Latin and quote Horace and Homer. Of what possible use was it, he wondered, filling the heads of the peasantry with such stuff? One could say that an Irish peasant-farmer fluent in Latin was “over-educated,” because it was knowledge he would never use in his labors. But wouldn’t his classical education have made his otherwise dismal life a bit richer?

  13. Bilwick,

    One factor that I think you might want to consider is that most of the ideas and information passed on via the education system of each particular generation will be considered garbage by subsequent generations.

    I am an a-ma-teur student of the history of scientific ideas. I find it fascinating that when you look at the details of the broad scientific thought of any era you realize that 90% ideas in play at the time were either near fatally incomplete or just flat wrong. Great ideas are great in part because they are the rare survivors of vast herds of hypothesis cut down by ravenous ugly facts. The situation in the humanities, which cannot appeal to mom nature to settle arguments, is even worse.

    There is considerable evidence to suggest that true value in an education in humanities is not the information that one acquires but rather as a marker that an individual possesses the discipline required to slog through it all. People with degrees in philosophy are surprising employable in the corporate world if they have any math skills at all.

    In short, just because a person is “educated” i.e. that they have passed through some formal schooling system, is in no way a good indicator of their functional understanding of the world. I personally think that many people today leave college with an actively dysfunctional world view created by post-modernism.

    The fact that Whole Foods makes a lot of money selling herbal supplements, “organic” foods etc to very bright people is to my mind evidence that this is true.

  14. Overeducated means:

    “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
    –Mark Twain

Comments are closed.