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In Clean Energy Conversation, Context Counts

Bob Keefe

Posted November 15, 2011

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Sometimes, in the desire to own a story or the yearning to advance the narrative, it’s easy for reporters to forget about context.

Unfortunately, that’s what seems to be happening in the press coverage of clean energy, much to the detriment of Americans trying to weed through the political rhetoric and fossil fuel industry hyperbole.  

In the lead-up to Thursday’s anticipated testimony of Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu at yet another GOP-led House hearing into Solyndra, both the New York Times and the Washington Post published stories over the weekend that paint the government attempts to jump-start the clean energy economy in America as a waste of taxpayer money.

If you only listen to critics trying to turn Solyndra into a political scandal for President Obama, that’s easy to believe.

But it’s not quite true.

Nevermind that Solyndra is just one of more than 5,500 solar companies now doing business in America, altogether employing more than 100,000 Americans. If you follow the coverage, you’d think Solyndra was the only solar company in America. You probably wouldn’t know that in just the past 90 days alone, nine other U.S. solar manufacturing plants have announced plans to create some 3,350 new jobs over the next four years.

My colleague Cai Steger actually did a quick tally of news articles over the past 90 days. The chart below shows what he found: More than 6,700 stories about Solyndra, and a mere 73 about the nine new solar manufacturing companies.

 Thumbnail image for graph.JPG 

The focus on Solyndra isn’t necessarily surprising or entirely unwarranted. But without the broader context of all the other news happening around solar, it gives Americans a false impression of the state of the clean energy industry. That can lead people to think we ought to give up on clean energy; lead investors to think clean energy is a bad place to put their money; lead fossil fuel companies to swing a little harder at the fledgling competitor to their profits.

Context is also important when it comes to the details.

In Sunday’s Washington Post opinion piece, reporter Steven Mufson states that the Energy Department has spent $172 billion since 1961 on basic research and development of advanced energy technologies. According to Mufson, America has very little to show for that.

Yet as Joe Romm points out over at Climate Progress, Mufson fails to note that of that $172 billion investment, only a small sliver went to renewable energy and energy efficiency research. Most, in fact, was been spent on nuclear, fossil fuel and other energy research. Mufson also fails to point out that the many of the 2.7 million jobs that Brookings Institution estimates were created by the “clean economy” would not exist if not for those government investments.

For some context you won’t get in the Post story, see Romm’s chart here:Thumbnail image for romm-chart.JPG

Romm also notes how the Washington Post failed to mention a 2001 National Academy of Sciences study that concluded a handful of clean energy technologies actually returned a whopping $30 billion on an R&D investment of $400 million.

The New York Times piece, meanwhile, goes to great lengths to point out how renewable energy companies have benefitted from a wide range of federal subsidies. Subsidies for renewable projects, the Times points out, skyrocketed to $14.7 billion in 2010.

But here again, context is lacking.

Times reporters Eric Lipton and Clifford Krauss fail to provide the readers with an idea of how these subsidies compare with fossil fuel industry subsidies.

Here’s the real context:

The oil and gas industry has received nearly $447 billion in cumulative federal subsidies and the nuclear industry has received $185 billion, according to a September report from DBL investors.

Renewables? They have received about $5.9 billion.

As DOE’s Chu pointed out elsewhere in the Washington Post, that’s less than Americans spent on potato chips in 2009.

Neither the Times nor the Washington Post mentions that no energy program in America has ever developed without government help, as the Breakthrough Institute points out in detail. Transforming how our country gets its energy is just too big of a job for private industry to do alone.

I’m not the only one who noticed the holes in the Times and Post stories. Time Magazine’s Bryan Walsh came to a similar conclusion in a good piece here.

Here’s where context is lacking the most in these newspaper stories and many others lately.

They fail to mention the myriad ancillary benefits of clean energy, compared to the unending problems with sticking with fossil fuels.

Clean energy doesn’t create emissions like fossil fuel power plants that cause thousands of premature deaths and health problems like asthma attacks and heart attacks.

Clean energy makes America more independent from foreign oil, and therefore more secure.

Clean energy doesn’t produce greenhouse gases, which are behind climate change that’s helping spawn more weather disasters.

Clean energy doesn’t cause environmental disasters and death, like last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the nuclear meltdown in Japan.

All of that is worth something, isn’t it?

Put in context, clean energy looks pretty good.

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Comments (Add yours)

Richard OttingerNov 16 2011 10:32 AM

Very well done. This is a message that needs to get far wider circulations, maybe an Op Ed piece in Times or Washington Post. The public once again is being misled by the very effective right wing propoganda.

Richard Ottinger
Dean Emeritus
Pace Law School

Kimberly HochNov 16 2011 11:43 AM

Great article. You pointed out some this I was not aware of and I will be sure to share this with my colleagues. It's unfortunate how misled the public is regarding this industry.

LisaAnnLusardiNov 22 2011 10:58 PM

Please note this: Living in NJ would not be complete if I did not have the honor of understanding the solar panel movement. The NJ Meadowlands has it's very own solar farm, to date it has been successful and fascinating for the communities. Even though WE GREEN PEOPLE do not have all the time to fact find every solar panel company I will offer one comment on Solyndra. WE THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES do not give up and we do not give in to be taken advantage of, I say tell SOLYNDRA to go back to the drawing board, get to work! Every bankrupt company has to get to work whether they like it or not. That money could have gone to other science programs for our colleges and our one is that extra special to receive that much money in funding and is not alright to accept defeat. IF ALBERT EINSTEIN ACCEPTED DEFEAT WHERE WOULD PRINCETON BE RIGHT NOW! GET TO WORK!

Rutherford, NJ

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