60 Minutes Gets it Mostly Right about ‘Cleantech’

Washington, D.C., January 7, 2014 – The twitterverse, particularly the region where the bird is green, was aflutter over the Sunday, January 5, “60 Minutes” TV piece by Leslie Stahl on the failures of the Obama administration’s program to use economic stimulus money to push development of green energy technologies. It’s title: “The Cleantech Crash.”

As Stahl observed, it was a plan largely driven by venture capitalists, winners of fortunes in Silicon Valley, Vinod Khosla, the sugar daddy of Sun Microsystems, among others. They thought they could replicate the 1990s tech bubble with solar, biofuels, electric vehicles, advanced batteries, and the like.

Stahl’s report starts with the visionary, often contrarian, and sometimes arrogant Khosla and his unlikely-to-survive wood chips-to-crude oil venture, KiOR. She returns to him often.

After the nearly 14-minute segment aired, supporters of all things green and magical erupted with anger and dismay. Reporter Katie Fehrenbacher at the Gigaom website noted, “As soon as 60 Minutes aired its story on ‘the cleantech crash,’ on Sunday night, my Twitter feed immediately erupted in hand wringing and complaints (and yes, my feed is filled with a mix of environmentalists, cleantech advocates and investors).”

The Huffington Post web magazine said, “Critics have called the segment a ‘hit job,’ a ‘debacle,’ an ‘about face’ and even ‘Dumb & Dumber Part 3.’” Those slams came from, respectively, ClimateProgress, Daily Kos, Silicon Valley’s San Jose Mercury News, and CleanTechnica.com.

The 60 Minutes segment highlighted the well-publicized failures – Solyndra, Fisker, A123, LG Chem, etc. But it also pointed to Tesla’s success and repeatedly returned to Khosla’s optimism (he is, after all, a venture capitalist). The piece also provided nuanced views from experts such as physicist Steven Koonin, who advised the Department of Energy and the Obama administration during its love affair with green energy technologies. While a skeptic, Koonin said he believed that the country ultimately got “good value for the money.”

Koonin was particularly telling on the administration’s pipedream that this spending would create a wave of green energy jobs. Here’s an interesting dialog:

“Lesley Stahl: Part of this was supposed to be creating new jobs. Everything I’ve read there were not many jobs created.

“Steven Koonin: That’s correct.

“Lesley Stahl: So what went wrong there?

“Steven Koonin: I didn’t say it would create jobs. Other people did.

“Lesley Stahl: So you never thought it was gonna create-

“Steven Koonin: I didn’t think it mattered as a job creation, no.”

Partisans and devotees, including green energy trade groups such as the American Wind Energy Association (recently stripped of its production tax credits), denounced the segment. That’s natural. Anything that does not follow the party line is, by definition, heresy.

But on balance, I thought 60 Minutes did a good job producing a balanced look at the often-overblown promises in the Obama green energy (the term “cleantech” makes me clench my teeth) stimulus endeavor. Those of us who spend much of our lives immersed in this stuff can no doubt find nuances missed and errors of emphasis. This is TV journalism, afterall.

Katie Fehrenbacher nailed it: “Contrary to the reaction of many of my Twitter friends, I think 60 Minutes got some key things right in the story, but they also got a couple of things wrong in there, too….” She and I might disagree on the details of what was right or wrong, but we do agree overall. It was a worthwhile 13:49 minutes out of the 60 Minutes last Sunday.