My father used to say of his profession that newspaper editors are the people who come down from the mountaintop at the end of the battle and shoot the wounded.
A massive credit crunch and a drop in the price of fossil fuels can mean only one thing to the editors of the traditional media — an excuse for their favorite activity in the whole world, the backlash story, the rising starlet in rehab story.
Faster than you can say “Joe the Plumber” isn’t a licensed plumber, his name isn’t Joe, and he has a tax lien against him, you can be sure that if the media ever lets itself fawn over you for even a nano-second, it will turn its coverage on a dime and run the minute a few whispy short-term clouds appear in the horizon.
And so we have the New York Times story, “Alternative Energy Suddenly Faces Headwinds,” which is supposed to be a clever headline, but the NYT, which accompanies the story with a picture of wind turbines, seems to have missed the irony that wind turbines like strong winds.
And we have the Washington Post Page 1 story, “As Fuel Prices Fall, Will Push For Alternatives Lose Steam?” You might notice the Post has chosen to show a picture of the Saturn plug in hybrid with the caption “Demand for electric cars like this Saturn hybrid may flag if gas prices keep sliding.” Currently demand is zero, since the car isn’t expected to go on sale for two years, so I’m not quite sure how demand can flag. More on this lame story below.
We also have a bunch of posts in the WSJ’s blog: “Green Ink: Crunch Time For Clean Everything” and “Financial Fallout: Why Renewable Energy Has the Blues” and “Clean Energy Meltdown: Now GE’s Bailing.”
Yes, renewables are capital-intensive. So is nuclear. Where are all the front-page stories on how difficult it’s going to be to raise capital for multibillion dollar nuclear plants? But those aren’t really sexy because nobody ever really liked nuclear power to start with, so you can’t have the backlash story. In fact, a global economic slowdown inevitably coupled with a credit crunch means a big drop in all major construction — as GE itself explained to the WSJ. And that same slow down reduces projected electricity demand growth rates in the near term, so you would expect an across-the-board slowing of all big electricity projects, including coal.
But again, it’s really only reduced growth in renewables that get you the faux drama the media hungers for: Can the rising media starlet in rehab recover? [Note to self: In the future, find a better analogy than comparing alternative energy to Lindsay Lohan.]
What’s funny about all of these backlash pieces about this recent former media darling is that for most of the 1990s when I was at the US Department of Energy, we couldn’t buy a story about clean tech. Good news stories really aren’t news. That’s why for all the talk about the liberal media, the traditional media is really conservative. It is a very status quo institution with the long-term thinking of an erection.
The fundamentals that guarantee clean tech will be the biggest job-creating and wealth-creating industry haven’t changed. We still need to replace most of the energy infrastructure of the developed world in the next four decades with clean energy, while at the same time building from scratch a clean energy infrastructure for the developing world [see "Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 2: The Solution"]. We still have a supply-demand mismatch in the oil sector that has brought us to the precipice of peak oil, as even the world’s largest oil companies now acknowledge (see “Peak Oil? Bring it on!“).
Let me focus on just one of the articles, the Washington Post piece, to show you the lengths that the traditional media will go to shoot what they think are the wounded alternative energy technologies. The story notes: