Cleantech Crash or Crescendo: What “60 Minutes” Got Wrong… and Right

January 6, 2014 | 6:09 pm
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

On January 5, “60 Minutes” included a story on “The Cleantech Crash,” claiming that investors, both private and government, haven’t gotten their money’s worth for all their investments in clean energy technology. As any rational look at the clean energy transition clearly reveals, the show got a few things right, but a whole lot more wrong.

Wind turbines? What wind turbines?

The “60 Minutes” segment is particularly disappointing because it’s a rehashing of the narrow, failure-focused thinking that we and plenty of others pushed back on a while ago, as in our Christian Science Monitor Op-Ed in early 2013 — pieces that neglect to take a look at the whole portfolios, in favor of a few sensationalized flops.

As Joe Romm’s response in Climate Progress puts it,

It’s as if 60 Minutes did a profile of the venture firm Kleiner-Perkins and focused primarily on its failed investments with only passing mention of AOL — and no mention at all of, Genentech, Sun Microsystems or Google!

And actually, the Department of Energy (DOE) loan window, while nailed shut for too long by politics and misinformation, is open for business again.

Source: U.S. Department of Energy, Revolution Now, Sept. 2013

Source: U.S. Department of Energy, Revolution Now, Sept. 2013

At one point, the interviewer asks, “Is cleantech dead?”

Wow. Clearly “60 Minutes” doesn’t read our blog posts carefully enough, and missed the fact that in some places wind is now out-competing natural gas. Or that coal is having a hard time competing with natural gas and renewables.

Even if maybe my particular year-end post on clean energy successes in 2013 just got lost in the holiday shuffle, they also clearly missed summary pieces like this article, or this one, or this one. Plenty of indications, from a range of voices and a plethora of markets, that things are changing for the better in so many ways.

A recent DOE report shows some of the fruits of smart public-private investments in basic technology and deployment in the energy space, shown in the tremendous growth in the use of a whole range of clean technologies, and the drop in their prices.

Curves like the one for wind power pictured here, and similar ones for solar, LED lights, and electric vehicles and batteries, led Romm to suggest that “the only thing in cleantech that is crashing is the cost of key components.”

Investing 101 (and energy policy 301)

CBS did get a few things right:

  • Cleantech investing isn’t easy. “60 Minutes” itself points out that “for every 10 startups, nine go under.” Some investments flop, others putz along, and only some soar. If that hadn’t been the case with the DOE investments, then that would have been an indication that it wasn’t taking the risks we needed it to. And, as CBS points out, private-sector investors guess wrong too… sometimes.
  • China is into this stuff. The “60 Minutes” segment includes an interview with the head of the U.S. branch of a Chinese company, talking about how they’ve picked up some of the pieces after investments have tanked. Even when some see crisis, others will continue to see opportunity — and turn it into real business. China’s strong investments in renewables in recent years — and its domination of world production of solar PV and leadership in installed wind capacity, among other superlatives — has to be viewed as being in part due to the country’s perception that there’s a whole lot of there there.
  • We do need a strong national energy policy. “60 Minutes” also includes one interviewee lamenting the lack of a “thoughtful and consistent energy policy.” That’s certainly right on. Clear policies from all branches of the federal government would send strong signals to investors and entrepreneurs about the value we put on energy security, economic development, environmental attributes, and more. A national renewable electricity standard, for example, or a price on carbon.

CBS was also right in pointing out that the recent abundance of natural gas has been part of the challenge. But they missed mentioning the perils that come with a headlong rush to gas, and how that underscores the need for more renewables.

Boldly going

In the meantime, we need to make sure we’re investing in other ways in expanding and deepening the range of technologies available to us to address climate change and more. When it comes to cleantech investment, including by the government, our greatest risk comes not from investing too boldly, but from not investing boldly enough.

About the author

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John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.