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If We Don't Insist on Balanced Coverage of Cleantech, We'll Suffer the Consequences (again)

on • 4 min. read

The phony Solyndra non-scandal of 2010-12 was catalyzed by a highly publicized FBI raid. It was then driven by an Iron Triangle of fossil fuel-funded front groups, fossil fuel-funded politicians running three congressional investigations, and conservative media echoing the resulting themes.  

However, the fossil fuel lobby’s real triumph was getting mainstream media outlets to swallow the hooked worm with months of stories framed by the Iron Triangle. The resulting coverage essentially asserted: “A government program lost half a billion dollars on a loan that was rushed through, perhaps under improper political pressure from the Obama Administration.”

Except that not a single person spent a minute in front of a judge. There were no crimes. The program that loaned the money netted $30M to taxpayers from interest payments within a year. And though it was designed to make bets on companies too risky for private capital, the program had a success rate of over 90 percent. By contrast, venture capital firms shoot for success rates of 25 percent (or as low as 5 percent, according to the Corporate Finance Institute).  

The legacy media coverage of the Solyndra non-scandal was wildly imbalanced because it downplayed those realities. It almost exclusively questioned popular policy and community acceptance of renewables and skipped past decades of highly unpopular corporate welfare checks to mature fossil fuel companies. After all, no one could win a journalism award with a headline saying, “Despite high-profile loss, successful program nets $30M to taxpayers.” 

This isn’t a historical irrelevance. Getting mainstream legacy to swallow the hooked worm was foundational to the oil and gas industry’s staying power as cleantech gathered commercial momentum. 

How? The Solyndra propaganda coup quickly halved renewables' support among white Republican men (from the mid-90s in SCHOTT-SEIA annual polling), pulling clean energy into the culture wars for over a decade. That stopped Republicans in Congress from supporting clean energy, enduring into last year's party-line vote on the historic Inflation Reduction Act. It’s also trained a cultural identity reflex that just flared again with this month's laughable “come and take it” boast from high-profile politicians responding to an imaginary ban on gas stove tops. 

Now to this piece from Ryan Beene and Josh Saul at Bloomberg News on recent wind turbine failures. 

First some caveats… Balanced scrutiny of cleantech’s challenges makes us stronger, and it should be welcomed. Bloomberg’s coverage of cleantech is second to none, and these are solid reporters. This particularly story seems accurately reported. 

But it’s what the piece does not include that’s problematic. It documents a handful of collapsed wind turbines through good photos and personal stories. However, it lacks any comparison of wind turbine failure rates to equipment failures in the oil and gas industry – where failures can result in oil spills. And it doesn’t compare the impact on the power grid from a fallen wind turbine versus the failure of equipment at a traditional power station. 

As a reader, I could use that context to evaluate whether there's much "there there" to some collapsing wind turbines. I imagine other readers need it as well, and I encourage these reporters to provide it in follow-up coverage. 

#Fossilfuelbros weaponizing imbalanced stories is a certainty, not a hypothetical. In fact, I found this story yesterday through a link from right-leaning Drudge Report, which linked to an anti-clean energy site, which linked back to the Bloomberg story. (That link chain is different today).

But the bigger point is that it’s on us to insist on such context – now more than ever. The new majority in the U.S. House is already card flashing that they want to resurrect the Solyndra propaganda coup. To them, any damage to America’s cleantech-led economic revitalization – much of it taking place in “red” states and counties – is an afterthought. 

But clean economy sectors can’t afford a repeat of last decade’s sins of omissions from the media. We need to forcefully push for clean economy coverage that’s balanced with context, and object to its absence. Twelve years ago, we settled for aggrieved silence. It didn’t work so well for us then. It would be disastrous now.  

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