This month alone, the Times managed to publish two pieces whining that the poor, neglected nuclear power industry is having trouble competing with renewables because solar and wind have become … so darn cheap.
Utterly lost on the Times is the irony that nuclear power was originally touted as a key part of a future where electricity was “too cheap to meter.” Now it’s just another inflexible but powerful dinosaur industry being crushed in the marketplace by a superior product — kind of like mainframe computers or the horse and buggy or … print newspapers.
The fact is that on a purely economic basis, nuclear power has to a great extent priced itself out of the market for new power, even for new carbon-free power. Heck, even the French can’t build an affordable, on-schedule next generation nuclear plant in their own nuclear-friendly country!!
But rather than report accurately on the renewable energy miracle, as, say, the International Energy Agency (IEA) and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) have, the Times manages to publish articles in its business section headlined, “How Renewable Energy Is Blowing Climate Change Efforts Off Course.” Seriously.
I will be debunking this wildly misleading piece — which is by Eduardo Porter, an economics correspondent (!) — point by point in my next post, but for now, let me just post some actual numbers (and quantified projections). In its latest report on the subject, “The Low Carbon Economy: Our Thesis In 60 CHARTS,” Goldman Sachs has several charts on “Emissions: How low carbon technologies begin to bend the curve.” Here’s just one:
Goldman Sachs concludes, “On our wind and solar numbers, emissions in IEA scenarios could peak as early as c.2020, rather than 2030.” So, yeah, “Renewable Energy Is Blowing Climate Change Efforts Off Course” — off course from failure to possible success.
The Times piece is the kind of nonsense you would expect to see on an ultra-conservative website with the headline “There Are Serious Problems With Wind And Solar.” Still, it’s probably just a coincidence that the ultra-conservative Daily Caller website repackaged the Times piece with that headline, and this lead: “Wind and solar power have been expensive boondoggles that won’t develop fast enough to affect global warming, according to a New York Times (NYT) article published Wednesday.”
It’s probably just a coincidence that the Times has a history of inflating nukes and deflating renewables….
It’s probably just a coincidence that one of the leading energy reporters for the Times, 30+ year veteran Matt Wald, after leaving the paper joined the Nuclear Energy Institute to become senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning last year.
It’s probably just a coincidence that the Times has been running this sponsored post from a pro-nuke group: http://paidpost.nytimes.com/nuclear-matters/nuclear-energy-in-the-us.html#. Don’t worry, that’s all made clear in small type to readers who can breathe easy that “The news and editorial staffs of The New York Times had no role in this post’s preparation.”
OK, on closer inspection, it does not appear to be a coincidence that, for a long time now, ridiculous stories dissing renewables and favoring nukes have been the norm (see, for instance, my 2009 post “NYT’s Matt Wald blows the ‘Alternative and Renewable Energy’ story, quotes only industry sources, ignores efficiency and huge cost of inaction” and my 2011 post, “The New York Times Abandons the Story of the Century and Joins the Energy and Climate Ignorati”). I will examine a number of more recent pieces below.
First, though, I asked Eileen Murphy — senior vice president, Corporate Communications at The New York Times — for a comment on all of these coincidences. She replied:
First of all, our editorial decisions are completely independent of any advertising business. And the paid post you mention is an advertisement.
On the other issue. If one looks over time, it is clear that we cover all aspects of the energy landscape. Right now, in fact, we have on our website — and scheduled for tomorrow’s print paper — a full page article on Elon Musk’s effort to solve some of the basic challenges of renewable energy from solar to battery storage to mass development of electric cars that do not burn fossil fuels.
As we’ll see, the Musk piece appears to be yet another example where the New York Times fails to provide its readers all the facts needed to get a true picture of the clean energy revolution.
I asked Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, whom the Times has called “an expert on environmental communications,” for his thoughts on all of this, including the articles below. He replied:
The NY Times is stuck in the past, defending the existing status quo, instead of embracing new approaches to provision of electrical power. These articles show the NY Times functioning as a defender of the dominant power structure, or in the terms of Julia Corbett, as a “guard dog” media [“Media power and climate change,” Nature Climate Change, March 2015].
She notes that ”Guard dog theory predicts that proponents of social change (scientists, environmental groups, politicians) will have an uphill battle — both with the dominant power structure and with the media — if the desired change differs from the status quo.” It is time for the NY Times to move beyond its defense of the nuclear industry.
Let’s look at some pieces in just the last year that reveal the Times’ apparent ongoing slant.
Recent Times articles revealing their apparent ongoing “status quo” slant in energy stories
In November, the NYT published an op-ed headlined, “The New Atomic Age We Need” by venture capitalist (and nuclear investor) Peter Thiel — yes, the guy who spoke last week on behalf of Donald Trump. Thiel’s thesis is “Both the right’s fear of government and the left’s fear of technology have jointly stunted our nuclear energy policy, but on this issue liberals hold the balance of power.” Uh, no and no. Liberals love technological progress toward cleaner energy … that’s one of the things that makes us progressive. And liberals don’t hold the balance of power — if we did, our climate and energy policy would be wildly different. In this case, the marketplace does, which is why nuclear is going nowhere in market economies.
In February, the Times published “SolarCity and Other Rooftop Providers Face a Cloudier Future.” Its key argument is that rooftop solar is supposedly in big trouble because some states (notably Nevada) are changing regulations in order to thwart it. Yes, what Nevada did was counterproductive and harmful to rooftop solar, but they already appear to be on the way to rolling back some of the changes. You’d never know from this piece, which is utterly devoid of any big-picture analysis, that rooftop solar has seen exponential growth for a long time now, had its best year ever in 2015, with a 50 percent increase over 2014 — and that it is forecasted to see continued growth (see below).
In April, we “learned” from the Times, “Renewable Energy Stumbles Toward the Future,” in which we read “Dozens of solar-focused companies around the globe have disappeared, through bankruptcy, insolvency or just shutting their doors, since 2009 when prices for solar panels plunged as competition from China increased.” That piece even brought up Solyndra — a five-year-old story which is actually about a company that placed the wrong bet on how fast solar prices would drop. And we read, “all good bubbles burst. What is happening in renewable energy now has similarities to the telecommunications bubble of the 1990s.”
Yeah, well, telecom seems to have done OK since then. You’d never know from this article, that, as BNEF reported, wind capacity has seen four doublings since 2000 globally and solar has seen seven! You’d never know from this article that solar power in the United States has seen a staggering 100-fold increase in sales in just the past decade.
You’d never know from either of these articles that solar power is expected to have its best year yet in 2016 — and that U.S. rooftop solar is expected to triple in six years:
Sure, some companies fail to manage a period of rapid growth well, but does this solar miracle story warrant headlines like, “Rooftop Providers Face a Cloudier Future” and is “Renewable Energy Stumbl[ing] Toward the Future”? Not at all. We should all be so lucky to be stumbling so rapidly to such a future.
Yet in May, the New York Times — acting in its “concern troll” mode of creating phony worry about wind and solar — actually ran one of its “Room for Debate” features on “What’s Holding Back Renewable Energy?” Again, both wind and solar are exploding at unprecedented rates in this country.
In contrast, in 2013, when the Times ran its “Room for Debate” feature on nuclear power — which has been essentially dead in the water in this country for decades because of its negative learning curve, the topic wasn’t “What’s Holding Back Nuclear Energy?” No, it was “Is Nuclear Power the Answer?”
Oh, and in April, the Times ran another ridiculous pro-nuke piece, “Liberal Biases, Too, May Block Progress on Climate Change.” Seriously! Here we are informed, “The left is turning anti-science” and “liberal biases may be most dangerous in the context of climate change, the most significant scientific and technological challenge of our time. For starters, they stand against the only technology with an established track record of generating electricity at scale while emitting virtually no greenhouse gases: nuclear power.”
Uhh, no and no. Or rather NO and NOOOO! First, the main reason we are taking climate action in this country is because the “left” has been pushing for it based on science for a long time. Second, as Salon explains, “It’s absurd to paint liberals as misguided as conservatives on the crisis.” I’d add that liberals don’t “stand against” nuclear power the way conservatives “stand against” climate science.
For decades, the entire conservative political establishment and right-wing media have devoted themselves to blocking all climate action, to spreading disinformation on climate action, and, sometimes, even opposing the use of the word “climate change.” They have also generally devoted themselves to spreading misinformation on clean energy and opposing policies that promote it. For decades, the liberal Democratic “establishment” has supported nuclear power and enacted pro-nuclear policies in national energy bill after national energy bill — including tax incentives and loan guarantees for new plants. And let’s not forget the repeated renewal of the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industry Indemnity Act, which puts the taxpayer on the hook for the cost of a truly major disaster and is probably a $100 billion-dollar subsidy by itself.
In any case, even with all those subsidies, new nuclear power has priced itself out of the marketplace, something this article never mentions — and so it is perfectly rational for someone who is concerned about climate change to understand that new nuclear power is at best a relatively modest piece of the solution (as the IEA and Nuclear Energy Agency concluded last year), and at worst a very expensive distraction. But you’d never learn anything about nuclear’s real economic problems from this article, even though it is written by Eduardo Porter who “writes the Economic Scene column for The New York Times.” Coincidentally, Porter “was a member of The Times’ editorial board, where he wrote about business, economics, and a mix of other matters.”
And you don’t have to take my word — or the Times’ word. “Ever since the completion of the first wave of nuclear reactors in 1970, and continuing with the ongoing construction of new reactors in Europe, nuclear power seems to be doomed with the curse of cost escalation,” read one 2015 journal article, “Revisiting the Cost Escalation Curse of Nuclear Power.”
Then there’s the Financial Times reporting last October on France’s newest Normandy plant, which originally was projected to cost €3bn ($3.3 billion) and start producing power in 2012. Instead, it “will not start until 2018 at a cost of €10.5bn [$11.3 billion].” Yes, even the French can’t build an affordable, on-schedule next-generation nuclear plant in their own nuclear-friendly country. Does that make them anti-science, too?
And here is a chart from BNEF Chair Michael Liebreich in his must-see keynote address at BNEF’s annual conference in April:
“The green line is the expectation of the cost of that power plant, Hinkley. 126 percent of the wholesale power price,” as Liebreich says, “It seems pretty clear that current generation nuclear is not the miracle that we’re looking for.”
And yet on May 31, the ever-vigilant Times published its umpteenth miss-the-forest-for-the-trees story in its business section, “Nuclear Plants, Despite Safety Concerns, Gain Support as Clean Energy Sources.” Uhh, no they don’t. And, in any case, it doesn’t matter because “support” isn’t their big problem — economics is.
I’m not saying you can’t find the occasional piece or editorial that actually gets the story right — the Times is a big paper after all. It’s just that they get overwhelmed by the apparent status-quo slant.
Even the story the Times’ touts as evidence that it is supposedly covering all sides of the energy story fairly is slanted toward the status quo, starting with its headline: “Tesla’s Chief Sticks to Mission Despite a Series of Setbacks.” It is certainly a fascinating article about Elon Musk and Tesla — but at no point in the entire article about Tesla’s struggles do you learn that, thanks in large part to Musk, there’s an explosion in sales for pure battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs, which also have a gasoline engine):
The Times poses a key question: “Can the batteries, even at the Gigafactory’s massive scale, be made cheap enough to persuade most consumers to kick their fossil-fuel habit?” Here is what the Times thinks its readers need to know about this central question:
“He’s got to get a little lucky,” said John B. Goodenough, who turns 94 on Monday, the physicist who helped pioneer the rechargeable lithium-ion battery at Oxford University in the 1970s and ’80s. “I do give him credit just for audacity.”
I almost hate to say it, but that quote just is not good enough. How can the Times not tell readers that the cost of batteries has dropped almost 70 percent in a mere six years — and is projected to keep dropping as sales grow? Here is BNEF’s chart from last month of what has happened and what they project will happen:
BNEF has been making a point for many months now that EV batteries have already crossed the key tipping point needed to attract massive consumer interest, as I discussed back in February.
And the once-staid IEA makes the same exact point in its major EV report released last month that I reported on: “Since 2008, battery costs [in US dollars per kilowatt-hour] were cut by a factor of four and battery energy density [in watt-hours per liter] had a fivefold increase.” Within a decade, we could well see EV sticker prices directly competitive with that of gas-powered cars, while offering zero tailpipe emissions and much lower per-mile costs even running on carbon-free power.
What does the Times have to say to its readers about the battery miracle and EV miracle? Crickets chirp, forests remain missing. But hey, those Tesla setbacks are certainly clickworthy!
To return to where I started, in June, the Times’ readers got another miss-the-trees-for-the-bark op-ed promoting nuclear and attacking renewables, “How Not to Deal With Climate Change.” And finally, last week, we got the ridiculous Porter piece, “How Renewable Energy Is Blowing Climate Change Efforts Off Course.” I will debunk these articles in more detail in my next post.
The key question is why does the Times have a pattern in which it overhypes nuclear power well beyond what the facts warrant — while at the same time generally underselling and minimizing the solar and wind well beyond what the facts warrant? Perhaps, just for the sake of appearance, they should stop running paid pro-nuke ads (that are virtually indistinguishable from their own unbalanced pro-nuke pieces) until they can answer this question.
Author: Joe Romm