“What’s the matter with 60 Minutes?”
Besides the fact that the piece made no mention of climate change — which is one of the stronger arguments behind cleantech — the report largely passed over the recent explosive growth in wind power, solar power, LED lights and electric vehicles.
But it’s not like 60 Minutes wasn’t told about the recent major successes in the clean tech industry. Robert Rapier, Chief Technology Officer at Merica International, was interviewed by 60 Minutes, and spoke to them at length about cleantech’s many successes. But the only comments included were ones about cleantech investor Vinod Khosla, who CBS asserts is “known as the father of the cleantech revolution” (he is not).
Rapier spoke with ClimateProgress on Monday about what got left out of the interview. Some of the answers below were edited for clarity.
Robert, can you explain what Merica is and what your background is?
Merica is a holding company, run by a German national who lives in Hawaii. He’s one of the largest investors in renewable energy in Europe.
Me personally, I’m a chemical engineer. I’ve got Bachelors degrees in chemistry and math, a Master’s in chemical engineering. I’ve been in the engineering field for about 20 years. My graduate school work was on advanced biofuels. I’ve worked in the chemical industry, I’ve worked in the petroleum industry, I joined ConocoPhillips to actually work on alternative fuels and I did some work for them in their renewable energy efforts particularly in the conversion of vegetable oils to jet fuels.
I’ve worked in a lot of different energy projects over the years and I’ve written about energy a lot since about 2005 — particularly debunking some of the overblown claims in the advanced biofuels arena. That’s really where my focus has been and most of my career has been.
I first saw you on 60 Minutes on Sunday. The episode itself was trying to make the case that Cleantech was a failure, and quoted you on Vinod Khosla. I think some people might have been left with the impression – although you didn’t say it – that you were agreeing with the general thrust of the show. What are your actual views, and what did you tell 60 Minutes?
It’s not my intention to distance myself from the story. I think that would be disingenuous. But I will give you the background here.
I didn’t know until Saturday what the story was about. I was contacted back in October by the producers of 60 Minutes, who said that he wanted to talk to me about Khosla. So I said ok.
We had a discussion, I gave him a lot of the historical background on Khosla’s fuel investments and some of the things he’s done and the reasons he hasn’t done well. I explained that I’ve been a critic of his for a long time.
We talked and they said, would you be willing to come to New York and talk about those things on camera? And I said … I’m pro-clean tech. I work in clean tech. It’s not my intention to come up and bash clean tech. If that’s the intent, I can talk about Khosla. I can be critical of Khosla and the things he’s done. But beyond that, I won’t come up there and bash clean tech, because that’s not the way I feel.
They said, OK, fine, I think we can accurately represent your views.
What happened next?
The first question Lesley Stahl asked me – “Clean Tech is dead. What killed it?”
I immediately said, “Clean tech is not dead.” There are many parts of clean tech that are doing very well – solar power is growing by leaps and bounds, prices are plummeting, wind power is growing exponentially.
So she said, “Clean tech, the story’s more complex. There are parts that are doing well, and parts that aren’t doing very well.” And I said yes, and she said, “Let’s talk about the parts that aren’t doing so well.”
And I said, “Advanced biofuels are consistently falling below expectation.”
She asked me then, “Do you want to name names?” And I said Khosla is one of the worst offenders. He’s been called to Congress a number of times and has just thrown out fantastical scenarios that weren’t grounded in reality. And, because he is well-known from his days at Sun Microsystems, he was given credibility that he shouldn’t have been given.
I did mention at some point Tesla Motors, which for instance, had a fabulous year. I said I would not bet against Elon Musk. And she said, “Everybody seems to acknowledge that, but that seems to be one of the few real successes.” And then I cited wind, solar power. I told her that there are a lot of successes that you can find. None of that made it through the edits.
You had no idea, when you were doing the 60 Minutes interview, what the story was going to be about?
I could surmise from the interview that I had, the story would either be about Khosla or about clean-tech in general. But I didn’t know if it was a clean-tech report card, I didn’t know if it was going to be a positive story, whether I’d be up there as the villain to talk about Khosla.
I didn’t know any of this until Saturday when I see a promo, and I go, “oh, that doesn’t look good.” I said “that looks like a hit job.”
I immediately thought, I’m going to really have some explaining to do because — while I stand behind everything I said — if I’m in a story that really negatively portrays clean tech, an area I work in and I’m supportive of, that’s going to be a problem.
What are some things that you said that weren’t in the interview?
There has been explosive growth, and I said, the future is solar. Solar will trump every other energy source. I mean, you cannot beat the efficiency. When you compare solar power to biofuels, the efficiency is just so, so much greater. It’s logical if you look at it that the future belongs to solar and I said that.
We didn’t spend a lot of time on that, and that’s not my area. She did mention [failed solar company] Solyndra in the interview. I said, there will be failures, but failure is part of the game. But it’s the nature of failure that’s important.
And that was the thrust of my interview.