Climate and Energy Ignorati at New York Times Run Yet Another Error-Riddled Story Attacking Clean Energy

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"Climate and Energy Ignorati at New York Times Run Yet Another Error-Riddled Story Attacking Clean Energy"

On an average yearly basis, renewables represent a small fraction of the total government investments in the energy sector (O&G is Oil & Gas)

Can you write a 2300-word article trashing clean energy subsidies that is so utterly devoid of crucial context for the readers that it

  • Ignores the vast, documented benefits of clean energy
  • Never discusses the large cost of dirty energy to human health
  • Never compares clean energy subsidies to dirty energy ones
  • Never compares U.S. clean energy subsidies to those of China, Germany and other countries.
  • Ignores climate change (yet again)
  • Utterly misunderstands the difference between a loan guarantee and a direct subsidy, among myriad other basic blunders?

You can if you are Eric Lipton and Clifford Krauss of the New York Times.  Their Friday piece “A Gold Rush of Subsidies in Clean Energy Search” joins the pantheon of recent one-sided, error-riddled, climate-free NYT pieces attacking clean energy or promoting dirty energy — see The NY Times Abandons the Story of the Century and Joins the Energy and Climate Ignorati.

The story is truly context free.  Again, you’d never know that the top U.S. economists (center-right non-environmentalists, just like the NYT editors appear to be) have provided a strong justification for clean energy subsidies — see Economics Stunner: “Oil and Coal-Fired Power Plants Have Air Pollution Damages Larger Than Their Value Added”; Natural Gas Damage Larger Than Its Value Added For Even Low CO2 Prices.  So have public health experts (see Life-cycle study : Accounting for total harm from coal would add “close to 17.8¢/kWh of electricity generated”).

NOTE:  The lead author of that last study was Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.  My old friend Hunter Lovins just tweeted, “Very sad loss: my friend Paul Epstein has died. World’s foremost expert on health impacts of global warming. Damn…. The world needed him.”  Paul was a compassionate visionary.  The world did need him, since his message about the health impacts of climate change obviously has not reached all the people who need to hear it.

You’d never know that China provides vastly more subsidies for clean energy (see “Solar Trade War?“).  Again, in late October, the Times published an article titled, “China Takes a Loss to Get Ahead in the Business of Fresh Water.”  But apparently the editors seem to think that only China should invest in emerging industries that are going to be massive job creators in the coming years.  For New York Times editors, China’s short-term losses to achieve long-term gains are smart business but America’s are boondoggles.

Other than a couple of brief quotes by clean energy advocates, the only accurate part of the story is the analogy to gold rushClean energy is indeed gold.

Every NY Times reporter and editor should have this excerpt from the recent International Energy Agency report on their desk:

“… we are on an even more dangerous track to an increase of 6°C [11°F]….  Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

Where on Earth can you get a return on investment like that?  Ideally we would have a price on global warming pollution, but failing that it’s obvious that our problem isn’t that subsidies for clean energy are too high, but that they are far, far too low.

As for debunking the myriad errors in this piece, NRG Energy, the major victim of the Times’ egregious reporting, has taken the unusual step of issuing a major rebuttal, which I repost below:

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE OR COMMENT


[In the interests of readability, I'm not indenting this]

NRG’S LARGE‐SCALE SOLAR PROJECTS: GETTING THE FACTS STRAIGHT

For those of you who have read the New York Times’ November 11 (online) article, “A Gold Rush of Subsidies in Clean Energy Search,” below are some of the facts that the article got wrong or didn’t include at all. The California Valley Solar Ranch (CVSR) is an ambitious, important project with a national purpose and NRG is proud of our efforts to help put people back to work building a more sustainable energy future.

The NYT says: “When construction is complete, NRG is eligible to receive a $430 million check from the Treasury Department — part of a change made in 2009 that allows clean‐energy projects to receive 30 percent of their cost as a cash grant upfront instead of taking other tax breaks gradually over several years.”

The Facts: $380mm will go to repay the DOE loan and the American taxpayer, and only $50 million flows to NRG as the equity investor in the project.

The NYT says: [Lawrence H. Summers warned of] “’double dipping’ [of government incentives] that was starting to take place. They said investors had little ‘skin in the game.’”

The Facts: The Government protected itself against this concern by ensuring that most of the money from the treasury grant received by the project has to be used to pay down the DOE loan. On the CVSR project, almost 90% of the proceeds from the cash grant will go to pay down the DOE loan.

The NYT says: “PG&E, and ultimately its electric customers, will pay NRG $150 to $180 a megawatt‐hour, according to a person familiar with the project, who asked not to be identified because the price information was confidential.”

The Facts: The exact price is confidential, but the number quoted is significantly higher than the actual power price in the CVSR agreement is overstated in the article by a significant amount.

The NYT says: “By 2015, NRG expects to be earning at least $300 million a year in profits from all of its solar projects combined,”

The Facts: NRG expects to make pretax profit of approximately $49MM (as disclosed on slide 40 of our 3rd quarter earnings call presentation.) The $300MM referenced in the article is actually EBITDA: Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization, not profits. The interest that we pay on the projects generates revenue for the American Government.

Fact: The economic analysis reflects a failure to understand the facts behind the deal.

  • The economic analysis of equity returns confuses after‐tax and pre‐tax returns and levered and unlevered returns.
  • The analysis should include not only the tax benefits of the project, but also the income taxes that will be paid by the project over time. The analysis provided only includes the tax benefits with none of the costs. It is the equivalent of saying someone’s take‐home pay is equal to their annual salary plus the standard IRS tax deduction, while ignoring the income tax paid by that person against which their tax deduction is credited! All of us know it doesn’t work that way for individual taxpayers. And it doesn’t work that way for solar projects in the California desert.\
  • The operations and maintenance assumption is too low by more than half. It does not take into account additional operating costs of the plant such as: replacing inverters, lease payments, operational insurance, and asset management costs‐among others.

Fact: Our projects will also help to put our country back to work. The CVSR project creates 350 high‐paying construction jobs and combined, NRG’s large‐scale solar projects will result in 3,840 direct and indirect construction jobs. Ivanpah, the largest solar thermal project in the world, enabled by the DOE loan guarantee program is an engineering and technological marvel and it is being built by more than 600 American pipefitters, laborers and construction workers—many of whom haven’t worked for up to two years prior to this job. They are proud of what they are building, confident in the future that they are creating and thankful to be gainfully employed.

Fact: These projects are not possible without the DOE support. No solar PV projects of this scale, $1 billion and above, have gone forward without DOE assistance; these projects involve more capital than the private sector will finance.

Fact: NRG is investing more than $1 billion of our own capital as equity in these massive solar projects. It is important to remember that we are a business with a fiduciary obligation to our shareholders, and we do need to make a return on the investment. We are investing more than $1 billion of our own capital in solar projects to advance technologies, meet customers’ needs for renewable power, and create jobs. If we build and operate these projects in accordance with our own expectations of cost and performance, we expect to realize solid equity returns on our investment on a risk‐adjusted basis.

Fact: These projects are good for the environment. NRG’s large‐scale solar projects would displace 1.7 million metric tons of greenhouse gases annually and result in dramatically improved air quality compared to fossil fuel alternatives. Big solar projects represent the future for our company and for our society. Solar power represents a sustainable, inexhaustible, zero‐emitting, domestic energy resource that can be installed on every rooftop and every parking lot in every city and hamlet across our great country. The International Energy Administration announced that, on our present course, climate change will be irreversible by the year 2017. The public and private sector need to work together to do more, not fewer, of these large renewable projects.

Fact: These projects and government support are driving down the cost of solar energy. The cost of solar power is falling dramatically, in large part because innovation, deployment at scale and competition are forcing inefficiencies out of the supply chain, and government support for solar power across the federal, state and local level and across both political parties has been instrumental in achieving those declining costs.

Fact: The government loan guarantee program is a loan program. Loans received by these solar projects, such as the California Valley Solar Ranch, are indeed loans that will be repaid (with interest) for the benefit of the American taxpayer.

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25 Responses to Climate and Energy Ignorati at New York Times Run Yet Another Error-Riddled Story Attacking Clean Energy

  1. Colorado Bob says:

    How power-generating paving lightens up public spaces and some pedestrians

    LONDON — It could be the last word in concrete solutions to carbon emissions: a paving slab that generates electricity with every footstep taken on it, providing clean power to both cities and remote areas not connected to a national grid. Best of all, it requires mainly used tires and concrete.

    The invention is the brainchild of industrial engineering graduate Laurence Kemball-Cook, who came up with the idea, perfected it in his final year at Loughborough University in central England, patented it, set up his company Pavegen and is now busy taking it to the world.
    http://www.eenews.net/public/climatewire/2011/11/14/1

    • Joan Savage says:

      neat!
      Imagine that. People actually want to walk and dance on the piezoelectric flooring. My guess is that the rubber is more comfortable than concrete or stone. If it works as well as they say, it could be a boon for those long walks with luggage at a transportation hub, both for one’s feet as well as for lighting.

      • Joan Savage says:

        And to loop back to the NYT’s coverage of clean energy, the transportation hubs I was thinking about are Grand Central Station, Penn Station, and JFK airport.

  2. nada says:

    The poor quality of the Times’ reporting on energy, other than their series on fracking, continues to floor me. It is reminiscent of the leadup to the Iraq war. They continue to bow at the alter of Daniel Yergin and crew. One would think that this cannot last, but they seem to be doubling down on false narratives. They even go out of their way to attack phosphate-free detergents.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      What’s with the bemusement? This is what the stenographers to power and Rightwing zealots who pose as journalists these days do for a living. If they grew a conscience, or a sense of shame, they’d be out on their backsides. I never read the MSM save to be acquainted with the latest lies and to have my lack of faith in the elites who slither to the top in capitalist economies reinforced. I have not been pleasantly surprised by some outbreak of integrity and decency for a number of years, but rather, over and over again, been left slack-jawed in amazement at the depths being plumbed.

  3. prokaryotes says:

    How much are the fossil subsidies again?

  4. The Wonderer says:

    On a separate but related issue, Richard Muller was on the Bob Edwards show today. It was painful to listen to him for 40 minutes, but I forced myself to do it. He sounds so reasonable and is right on many points, but slips in so many fundemental things that are flat-out wrong. I hope you or Michael Mann are able to get on the show soon to set the record straight. I think quite a bit of damage was done on that show today.

  5. Leif says:

    I just sent a letter to the NYT with a note of my continued dissatisfaction, and a link to this article.

    Poor Joe, this major media debunking is becoming a full time responsibility. My heart goes out to you.

    Paul Krugman and Tom Freidman please weigh in here.

  6. David B. Benson says:

    Royal Academy of Engineers (UK)
    http://www.raeng.org.uk/news/publications/list/reports/Cost_of_Generating_Electricity.pdf
    attempts to assess the actual costs and not these (rather silly) arguments about whether taxpayers or ratepayers bear the cost burden.

    • jyyh says:

      I’ve been wondering of the transmission costs of electricity and wouldn’t they get lower if the solar (and other renewables) would be built & connected at specific locations to the grid? Anyways there’s the storage issue (there’s not always wind when there’s electricity demand) that should be dealt with at the same time when one is building such plants (build a distillery beside that operates only when there’s excess wind f.e.) . For those interested, http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/11/13/energy-storage-dt/ has some stuff on this (I haven’t checked the numbers) but of course it’s a pretty political issue whether to deal with the nuke waste, melt the arctic or pay somewhat more for the renewable deployment.

    • MightyDrunken says:

      The Royal Academy of Engineers report is odd in at least two ways.
      One is that it provides a very low price for Nuclear, much lower than other studies.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nuke,_coal,_gas_generating_costs.png

      Secondly it puts a very high price on standby generation for wind, even though the report itself notes that most of that will be met with existing capacity and not new plants. In fact wind is currently cheaper than what the report says it is.

      Finally it did not account for changes in fuel price, “it is outside the scope of this report”. It cites 21.8p per therm for gas, the price currently is 65p per therm. Coal is now about £70 per tonne, not £40 as the document uses.

  7. Shelley says:

    I write about how people survived the biggest ecological disaster in U.S. history, and I have never before seen the excellent chart in this post about subsidies. That is little-known knowledge–and a picture is worth a thousand words!

    • David B. Benson says:

      Unfortunately it is highly misleading. There is a difference between sunk costs in the past and current expenditures. We can’t do anything about the past, but we can (conceivably) change the on-going subsidies and incentives.

  8. thanes says:

    I may not be able to continue to subscribe for the sake of my sanity. And my wife is beginning to think I’m lapsing into conspiracy theory because I’m ranting about this abysmal coverage (I’ve been bitching about this article since Saturday, and that was before I even knew about the factual inaccuracies). This is seriously odd how bad this coverage is.

  9. The NYTimes seems to be an advertising vehicle.

    Why should ANY carbon fuel industry be permitted to advertise?

    At the very least, we should regard them like tobacco – regulate and not permit advertising.

  10. richard sequest says:

    I just cancelled my subscription.

  11. Mike Roddy says:

    Once again, The New York Times is digging its own grave. In their quest to please both advertisers and (cursorily) the public, they have destroyed their biggest asset: their reputation.

    It’s gone, and won’t come back. Another national newspaper is needed to fill the void, staffed by those who have been abandoned and marginalized by oil company advertisers. The Times would then become even more pathetic, written by the kinds of reporters who put together this atrocious piece.

    The blame lies on the Sulzbergers, who have shown that when it’s cash vs. truth, it’s not even a contest.

  12. Joan Savage says:

    The NYT article accidentally illustrates the frequent confusion about private/public utilities and their funding.

    When a local government agency gets funding for construction, it is often through a complicated formula of grants, bonds, and anticipated revenue.
    Compound that complexity with a private venture that both receives public financial support and yet is also a private part of the public utility system.
    I’m grateful Joe keeps track of loans versus subsidy and other features of this example.

    More generally, it certainly behooves the NYT to get the necessary background on public / private funding to report it well, as this is not going to be the only example.

  13. Tim says:

    Left out of this argument are a couple more competitive cost questions: What are the prospects of the United States launching a war that will cost more than a trillion dollars in order to gain access to solar energy? In which corrupt middle-eastern nation’s “democracy” will we have to devolop an all-consuming interest so that we can have access to solar energy?

  14. SecularAnimist says:

    “Error-riddled”?

    It’s time to stop pretending that these blatantly and deliberately dishonest anti-renewable propaganda pieces from the New York Times are the result of “error” or “ignorance”.

    The Times is lying to its readers — for money.

    It’s as simple as that.

  15. Ric Merritt says:

    If it wasn’t already obvious, the story discussed here and the recent deaf-dumb-and-blind special section on energy show that the problem at the NYT is right at the top. The publishers don’t say much, but they choose the editors, and the editors are clueless. Publishers with a clue couldn’t choose or tolerate this much editorial ignorance.

    Bill Keller, until very recently the long-time executive editor, had an Op Ed a day or two ago musing on Obama vs Romney and what kind of presidency might result. Not a word about energy issues. I guess they didn’t come to mind when Keller thought about the future of the nation.

  16. Sumner Crosby says:

    I can’t find the numbers; but I bet you know them: what about the total federal subsidies for U.S. Oil Shale (in places like Colorado), or for that FutureGen plant in Illinois? How many stories are there of failed federal investments/subsidies in dirty sources of energy? I assume there are many more than the money “lost” in the Solyndra affair. Thanks for all that you have done to push back on so many issues!