In Clean Energy Conversation, Context Counts
Posted November 15, 2011
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.
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.
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.