Outrageously Unfair Piece on CleanTech from CBS’s ’60 Minutes’

I know I’m not the only person who was irritated by CBS’s 60 Minutes broadcast a couple of weeks ago on the cleantech industry.  The producers’ mission?  Convince a gullible audience that cleantech is dying, and that any life that happens to remain at this point comes at the expense of the taxpayers.  Viewers were told that they had been duped into supporting a business arena that exists only because of a bloated government bureaucracy with its wasteful and fraudulent subsidies and loan guarantees.  The show falsely reported that the private sector has abandoned this arena, writing it off as a failure.

The mission was accomplished, i.e., the estimated 7.4 million viewers where led, precisely and expertly, to that erroneous conclusion.  The good news is that it was accomplished at the expense of an enormous outpouring of comments to the effect that 60 Minutes had deliberately lied to and mislead its audience with a clever combination of selective reporting and outright lies.

Infuriated viewers pointed out a few different things:

  • Yes, there have been a few extremely visible government-backed failures; Solyndra is the one that Big Energy and other conservative industries love to dredge up.  But why was there no mention of the many important successes?
  • What about the importance of American competitiveness in a global economy in which clean energy is clearly becoming an extremely important (arguably the single most dominant) industry?
  • What about the private sector, where the biggest banks in the known universe: Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Citigroup, etc. are currently investing seven trillion dollars (that’s not a typo, nor a mistake; it’s trillions of dollars) of private capital?
  • Couldn’t CBS have noted what the solar PV industry did last year?  The “TAN – Guggenheim ETF (Exchange-Traded Fund)” – the benchmark for the solar PV industry — was up a mere 129.64% in 2013. That’s not exactly moribund by most standards of accounting.  Wasn’t any of this worth a single mention?
  • How about the fact the wind and solar industries are twice the size they were four years ago?
  • Mightn’t CBS have mentioned that the portion of grants given to ventures that later failed represented less than 3% of the total portfolio?
  • What about an even more basic fact?  Three-quarters of all businesses fail — whether they’re in cleantech or healthcare or pizza, whether they’re government-backed or not.

Although most of these comments came from rank-and-file industry consultants and clean energy advocates, the US Department of Energy felt obliged to comment: “Simply put, 60 Minutes is flat wrong on the facts,” DoE spokesman Bill Gibbons said in an emailed statement, as if it’s an accident, or as if this is the first time this happened. He went on to explain, “The clean energy economy in America is real and we are increasingly competitive in this rapidly-expanding global industry. This is a race we can, must and will win.”

Personally, what I found most glaringly obvious is that the show didn’t even mention the imperative to develop cleantech in the first place.  In 15 long and disgusting minutes, there was not a single mention of climate change, ocean acidification, lung disease, loss of biodiversity, water and food shortages, etc.  At the risk of mentioning the obvious, cleantech isn’t like athletic shoes or sports cars or beer. We’ll still have a civilization here in 50 years without Coors Light.  The same can’t be said of cleantech.

Our scientists tell us that we’re in the process of baking and choking ourselves to death.  The arctic ice is melting, and the air in Beijing is 20 times more polluted than “safe” levels. When we look at photographs of folks in China gasping for breath, decent people everywhere see something that apparently got lost at CBS: cleantech is essential to our survival.

Any attempt at fair reporting would have at least mentioned this:  we either solve the problem, or we perish.  But couldn’t a solution come along without technology?  I suppose so, if we’re prepared to retreat to our pre-industrial, pre-consumer ways, though that doesn’t sound too likely.

Craig Shields is editor of 2GreenEnergy.com, and author of Renewable Energy — Facts and Fantasies (published by Clean Energy Press, 2010).

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