Cleantech Elephants and 60 Minutes

This post was originally published on PV Solar Report.

Don’t think of an elephant. No, really, don’t think of an elephant. Whatever you do, do not think of an elephant.

What are you thinking of now? Can you get that picture of an elephant out of your mind? If you can, you’re a stronger man or woman than I.

I have an elephant in mind now. It’s an elephant called “Cleantech Crash,” a much-discussed 60 Minutes segment that’s being called everything from a "hit job" to a "debacle" to "Dumb & Dumber Part 3." It has the blogosphere livid, and rightly so. After all, a lot of people watch 60 Minutes. And those people are going to get a very wrong idea about solar power and other forms of “cleantech.”

A day after the segment aired, there are already a number of excellent articles explaining what was wrong with it. And they had to be written; it’s important to set the record straight. A few main points covered in those articles:

  • The term cleantech is rather broad. The segment talks about solar, biofuels, and electric vehicles as if they were all one thing, when they are quite distinct technologies and industries.

  • As Joe Romm notes on Climate Progress, “the only thing in cleantech that is crashing is the cost of key components.”

  • The Huffington Post points out that the segment conflates Silicon Valley venture capital with the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program for renewable energy -- the latter of which has an amazing 97% success rate.

  • The segment completely misses the boat on cleantech jobs, claiming they haven’t been created. In fact, according to CleanTechnica, The DOE program alone created over 55,000 direct jobs in various cleantech sectors.

  • One of the main interviewees on the show, Vinod Khosla, is referred to “as the father of the cleantech revolution,” though the consensus is that he’s nothing of the kind.

I could go on, but the articles linked to above have already done the job admirably.

The problem with misleading media coverage like this 60 Minutes segment is that it puts those of us in “cleantech” on the defensive -- and does a good job of keeping us there. These outbursts don’t do anything to enlighten the public, but they keep us scrambling to write rebuttals. I’ve done it myself on more than one occasion. And here I am writing another one.

We have to do that. We can’t leave lies and misstatements unaddressed. But when we focus on denying outrageous claims about solar and other renewables, we keep the attention on those claims. We end up giving them even more air time.

What can change this? What can get us in front of the news and let us -- not those intent on killing “cleantech” -- frame the discussion?

The answer is simple. The answer lies in the success of renewables itself. And it’s happening. It’s too late in coming, and we may feel frustrated at having waited so long for it. But it’s taking off in a big way, and it’s going to surprise a lot of people.

Our particular area, solar, just finished a spectacular year. The United States had its biggest quarter ever for residential installations and was set to surpass Germany in solar capacity installed for the first time in over 15 years. California installed more solar last year than in the last 30 years combined, and GTM Research expected over 400,000 solar projects to be operating in the country by the end of 2013, with installations having grown 27% over 2012.

The industry is sure to continue experiencing ups and downs, but its momentum can no longer be stopped -- despite concerted attempts by the likes of the Koch brothers. Solar is no longer for elite liberals but is being adopted widely by the middle class and embraced by progressives and conservatives alike. Poll after poll is showing solar’s popularity with the public, as more and more people realize they can control where they get their energy while containing their costs.

It won’t be long till we can stop writing these articles. It won’t be long before the success of solar -- and other "cleantech" sectors -- can speak for itself.