60 Minutes and Missing the Point

Part of me doesn’t want to waste anymore digital ink on the CBS 60 Minutes CleanTech Crash segment. Like any national media story on clean energy, it’s effectively stirring the pot of energy and climate commentators and causing a mini firestorm. It’s clear why: it sidesteps policy debates that are too important to ignore and paints a very one-sided picture. Of course, the segment gets a couple things right, but it spends most of its runtime revisiting past problems rather than focusing on real policy issues and innovation success stories in clean tech.

ImageCBS 60 Minutes CleanTech Crash segment journalist Lesley Stahl. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The 60 Minutes piece tells the story of clean energy’s rapid fall from grace due to wasteful government failures and confused venture capitalists dragging themselves out of the clean tech industry with little to show but the clothes on their backs. It conveniently fulfills many ideological oracles, such as the government always being a failure or clean energy being a far-fetched dream of tree huggers.

To a degree, 60 Minutes’ critique of clean tech investment has some merit. As Katie Fehrenbacher wrote in GigaOm, it’s true that venture capital made a lot of investment mistakes in clean energy and has dramatically pulled back. Some VC’s are still in the energy game, but most have gone back to supporting mobile apps and social media. The anatomy of what went wrong with VC investments in energy is important to dissect, particularly from a technology readiness and innovation perspective. And I think Vinod Khosla’s thoughts on taking risks and being okay with investment failures is a spot-on message that needs to be heard (and listened to) more in Washington.

Instead, CBS uses these issues to paint a broad brush of clean tech’s doom-and-gloom. As many have already rightfully pointed out, the resulting piece can best be described as an epic failure. There is a growing list of what was wrong with the story. Dana Hull of the San Jose Mercury News points out the story fails to even mention climate change, which puts into context the reason why the United States is supporting clean tech in the first place.

Katie Fehrenbacher adds that the story confounds the failures of VC energy investments with government clean energy innovation policy. While there were also government-supported clean energy technologies that flopped in the market, they are actually few and far between compared to the larger portfolio of innovations the Department of Energy is advancing. Not mentioning clean tech success stories outside of a quick pass at Tesla ignores the key investments in research, pilot projects, demonstration projects, and manufacturing that are advancing breakthroughs in technology or growing clean tech markets.

Making this issue more damning is the revelation that it was deliberate, at least according to one of the segments’ interviewees. Even under modest oversight, this looks more and more like a “hit-job.”

But what really burns me is that, in addition to the flaws pointed out above, the segment ignores serious clean tech policy debates that are worth taking a deeper dive into. For starters, the United States is truly in the middle of a clean tech crash, just not the kind CBS tries to advance. The U.S. clean energy innovation budget — the public investments in RD&D and smart deployment — has fallen 28 percent since the 2009-10 Stimulus Act. Federal clean energy research has dropped from $7.9 billion in 2010 to $5.6 billion today. Investments pegged for demonstration projects have dropped by an incredible 97 percent since the Stimulus. And many in Congress want to continue this trend with even deeper cuts.

Making matters worse, Congress also allowed the Production Tax Credit (PTC), which supports wind technologies, to expire at the end of 2013. While I’ve been very critical of the United States use of “blunt” deployment subsidies that no longer support clean energy innovation, it’s important that there be early-stage deployment support for emerging energy technologies regardless. Rather than allowing the subsidy to simply expire, Congress should replace the PTC with a more innovation-driven tax incentive that reflects the maturation of some clean technologies, like wind and solar, but allows for future support for new tech. Of course, this is all while other energy technologies, like oil and natural gas, continue to benefit from public largesse on a permanent basis.

The 60 Minutes segment was certainly a missed opportunity. There are very real policy debates in the United States that are directly impacting the future success and failure of clean energy. The story about the nation’s deteriorating energy innovation ecosystem is one that needs to be told to a wider audience if the right reforms and investments are to be made to address climate change.