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New York Times makes excuses while Portugal shows U.S. how to move forward

By Climate Guest Contributor on August 11, 2010 at 9:48 am

"New York Times makes excuses while Portugal shows U.S. how to move forward"


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Our guest blogger is CAP’s Richard Caperton, Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

Yesterday’s New York Times article (“Portugal Gives Itself a Clean Energy Makeover“) on Portugal’s transition to a clean energy economy should be welcome news for renewable energy advocates.  Portugal’s experience validates what we’ve all been saying for years: reliance on fossil fuels is dangerous, renewables are affordable, and extensive use of renewable electricity is technically possible.  Unfortunately, the article “balances” all of these lessons with misleading comparisons to the United States and wildly overblown descriptions of the cost and difficulty of the transition.

The impressive news, and the real story in the article, is that good policy and forward-thinking leadership have helped Portugal make a quick transition away from fossil fuels.  As the article states, “Nearly 45 percent of the electricity in Portugal’s grid will come from renewable sources this year, up from 17 percent just five years ago,” an astounding 264 percent increase.

Why has Portugal been so successful?  Because their politicians are willing to put themselves on the line and lead the country.  Here’s an illustrative paragraph from the article:

“You cannot imagine the pressure we suffered that first year,” said Manuel Pinho, Portugal’s minister of economy and innovation from 2005 until last year, who largely masterminded the transition, adding, “Politicians must take tough decisions.”

And after getting elected, Portuguese officials didn’t mess around with low-level incentives and meaningless goals.  Instead, they implemented the most successful renewable electricity incentive in the world: a feed-in tariff.  The Times article skirts this issue and talks more about improvements to the transmission grid and changes in utility regulation, but the fact is that feed-in tariffs provide the long-term certainty and predictability that project developers need to invest in renewable energy.  As a brand new National Renewable Energy Laboratory report on feed-in tariffs states, “[Feed-in tariffs] are responsible for approximately 75% of global PV and 45% of global wind deployment.”

The lesson for the U.S. politicians is clear: it is possible to implement policies that work and get elected at the same time.

Unfortunately, this is where the Times falls short.  Instead of holding up Portugal as an example to emulate, the article attempts to show why the U.S. is different.  For example, there’s a cumbersome description of the history of utility deregulation, with the implication being that we could never do it in the U.S.  What this ignores, however, is that we’ve already done the same thing.  While our ownership structure for transmission is different from Portugal’s, FERC rules have led to the creation of independent system operators and many states have laws that have separated generation, transmission, and distribution into different businesses.

The Times accurately describes why we need to build new transmission to support wide scale renewable deployment.  Of course, this will cost money, but it’s not nearly as cost-prohibitive as the Times would lead one to believe.  They cite a Pew report estimating that the U.S. needs to spend $3-$4 billion per year to build the transmission needed for new renewables, but fail to put this in proper scale.  Four billion is a lot of money, but it’s about 1% of annual electricity sales in the U.S.  This investment would also have a very quick pay-off in the U.S., where we have a whopping 300 GW of planned wind energy investment that’s being held up because of insufficient access to transmission, according to a new report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Perhaps most distressingly, the Times makes no mention of the coming climate change catastrophe if every country in the world doesn’t follow Portugal’s example.  This is a glaring omission, especially from this paragraph:

“I know it’s good for the country because it’s clean energy and it’s good for the landowners who got money, but it hasn’t brought me any good,” said Jos© Cristino, 48, a burly farmer harvesting grain with a wind turbine’s thrap-thrap-thrap in the background. “I look at these things day and night.” He said 90 percent of the town’s population had been opposed.

Sure, Mr. Cristino may not have seen any good yet, but it’s only a matter of time until he sees a whole lot of bad.  If he’s concerned about having to look at windmills near his land, he should ask Russian farmers how bad a devastating climate change induced drought looks.

And, why didn’t the Times seek out the views of any of the landowners who are now getting a brand new paycheck from leasing their land for wind turbines?  As CAP’s Jake Caldwell describes, taking action on climate change can dramatically increase farm income.

Finally, the Times closes with one of the more inane quotes in the article:

“Broadly, Europe has had great success in this area,” said Mr. Juech, the analyst at Garten Rothkopf. “But that is the result of huge government support and intervention, and that raises questions about what happens when you have an economic crisis or political change; will these technologies still be sustainable?”

Even if we ignore the preposterous notion that economic crisis or political change somehow affect the inherent environmental sustainability of renewable electricity, this quote is still nonsense.  Not only has Europe been successful in implementing renewable energy, but they’ve actually answered Mr. Juech’s question.  Throughout the recent economic calamity, and over the course of elections that have changed governments across the continent, Europe’s shift away from fossil fuels has not slowed.  Renewable technologies are our only choice at sustainability and we need leadership who will implement the right policies to make the transition to clean energy as quickly as possible.

Richard Caperton is Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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12 Responses to New York Times makes excuses while Portugal shows U.S. how to move forward

  1. mike roddy says:

    Good summary of that article, Richard- your reaction mirrored my own. The New York Times has become an ossified and irrelevant relic when it comes to climate science and technology. The Sulzbergers are paralyzed with fear over offending advertisers that are either directly involved in fossil fuels or have relationships with them.

    Some of us tried sending letters to their Public Editor over these kinds of issues, including complaints about Tierney, Broder, and specific stories. We finally figured out what’s going on.

    This is going to hurt the Times in the end, since people will remember their consistent waffling over the most important story of our lifetime.

  2. Peter Mizla says:

    Considering the NYT continued obstruction of the News- and their pandering to their many right wing advertisers, is the above column surprising?

  3. catman306 says:

    “Feed in tariff” So that’s what they call it when the power company has to buy your excess solar power. (pardon my ignorance)

    Definitions of Feed-in tariff on the Web:

    A feed-in tariff (FiT, feed-in law, advanced renewable tariff(1.3MB) or renewable energy payments) is a policy mechanism designed to encourage the adoption of renewable energy sources and to help accelerate the move toward grid parity.

    a common mechanism for encouraging investment in renewable generation, mainly at small scales. A feed-in tariff is essentially a premium rate paid for clean generation, eg from solar panels or small wind turbines, and guaranteed for a long time period. …

    Feed-in tariff is the premium paid by a utility to it’s consumers for excess power generated by their solar, wind, or alternative energy system. Feed-in tariffs are used by government as incentive for consumers to adopt newer, cleaner, renewable energy sources

    If solar power is supplied to the public grid, the grid operator is required to purchase the power generated from a renewable source at the current rate.

  4. Jeff Huggins says:

    Great post, Richard. Thanks.

    I’ve been following the Times’ coverage of climate change and energy issues for several years now, and it (the coverage) clearly shows that there are “systemic” and “paradigmatic” problems with how the Times treats, and even understands, those matters.

    The problems in coverage are not just occasional random accidents, of course. Here, I’m not saying that there is some sort of conscious and ill-motivated conspiracy, of course. No. Instead, the results that we see in the paper must be consequences of some combination of a gross misunderstanding of the vital importance of news media, a deep paradigmatic deference to the status quo, a placement of near-term commercial interests over the well being of society itself, a good deal of negligence and incompetence, a pattern of repeating the same mistakes over and over and over again, a preference for excuse-making rather than self-assessment and improvement, and (apparently in many cases) an incomplete understanding of the very subjects that they are covering. And that list probably misses one or two other important factors.

    Andy Revkin indicated that he will be writing an open letter to the news media, and to the journalism community, providing his assessment of climate and energy coverage as well as his views on what should be improved, if anything. I don’t know if he’s done that yet, but we should keep an eye out for it. It should be interesting, at a minimum, and hopefully candid, productive, and game-changing.

    Be Well,


  5. Doug M. says:

    So when a news source consistently “balances” the truth with lies, then it is always half-full of lies.

    How can any such news source be considered trustworthy at all?

  6. Bill W says:

    I’ve read that a portion of Spain’s economic woes is due to their overly generous government-funded feed-in tariff. Assuming I’m remembering that right, how do we counter criticism based on that? Is there a better argument than “the pols did it wrong?”

  7. Chris Winter says:

    Bill W wrote: Is there a better argument than “the pols did it wrong?”

    I’m not sure why a better argument is needed. I mean, that sort of argument works for the initial European implementation of cap-and-trade for the Kyoto Accord, which they’ve since tightened up.

  8. Richard W. Caperton says:

    @ Bill W:

    I think “the pols did it wrong” is a perfectly reasonable answer. Germany has a very successful feed-in tariff that was designed to avoid the problems that have plagues Spain. France has a new feed-in tariff that also addresses Spain’s issues.

    The new NREL report I mentioned in my post talks specifically about Spain’s experience. Briefly, they made a few mistakes, including not monitoring the amount of solar that was deployed, not lowering the tariff to account for lower costs, and running part of the tariff through the government’s budget (instead of simply through utility bills). None of these problems have to exist in a properly-designed feed-in tariff.

  9. cervantes says:

    The NYT has an apparently inviolable policy of not mentioning climate change when covering AGW-relevant stories. They militantly ignore it when reporting on the Russian heatwave/drought/wildfires as well, even though the Russian leadership has been invoking it. Maybe some day we’ll learn why.

  10. James Newberry says:

    The US fossil/fissile military industrial complex and associated investment banks (oxymoron), like the five described in S. Johnson’s book 13 Bankers, are throwing everything they have against the US gov. instituting this type of clean energy change. This is due to the potential for $trillions of “stranded assets,” like what they socialized during (nuclear bankruptcy) electric utility restructuring.

    The “economy” has become a meaningless, bean counter term, corruption is the word for governance, and we are all fossil fools living under plutocracy. USA number one.

  11. Ken Johnson says:

    Rep. Inslee has introduced feed-in tariff legislation based on the European model. These sorts of policies can create price incentives far more powerful than “economy-wide” carbon pricing because the incentives are focused on a small segment of the energy economy. Feed-in tariffs typically provide price guarantees for renewables, which are financed by utility rate premiums; but financing could alternatively be provided by carbon fees — very modest fees, if the revenue is earmarked entirely for new-source renewable-energy incentives.

  12. Ecotretas says:

    A very biased story. For a portuguese interpretation, please see my reply at http://ecotretas.blogspot.com/2010/08/portugal-new-york-times.html