Media Fails to Report Solar, Wind Successes from Obama’s Policies

Solar panel arrays in San Luis Obispo County, June 2011.Solar panel arrays in San Luis Obispo County, June 2011. (Photo: russf)In the second presidential debate, President Barack Obama mentioned that electricity generation from wind and solar have doubled during his administration.

This was a bold claim but may also be an understatement. Wind power capacity in the United States has slightly more than doubled to 51.6 gigawatts (GW) in the last three years and nine months; however the electricity generation capacity of solar technologies is nearly four times as great as when the president took office, reaching 5.7 GW by July 2012.[1]

This is roughly the same capacity as five or six average-sized nuclear reactors from solar output, and 50 reactors worth of wind power. Another 4.6 GW of large-scale solar is under construction, as well as another 8.4 GW of wind power, which, when complete, will bring us to 10 GW of solar and 60GW of wind. [2]

The story of the dramatic growth of these industries is part of the global transformation of our energy systems away from fossil fuels and nuclear power and toward renewable energy. In German this is called the “energiewende,” the energy transformation.

And while we still get most of our electricity from coal, natural gas and nuclear reactors, the experience of European nations and the work of scientists at the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory have confirmed that such a transformation is both technologically feasible and economically manageable. All that is missing in many cases is the political will. [3]

However, pick up any US newspaper or click on the website of any mainstream online publication, and you would know none of this. Instead, when renewable energy is mentioned, we often hear about the bankruptcy of Solyndra, Abound Solar, or A123 Batteries and arguments over the merit of federal subsidies.

Building solar and wind: Obama’s policies

Obama cannot take credit for all of the progress made in renewables, as there are multiple forces at play. Falling prices, particularly for solar, and state-level renewable energy policies are likely the largest drivers.

However, both analysts outside the industry and solar industry leaders have been clear that the ability of the US solar industry to grow during the recession owes a great deal to the policies promoted by President Obama and the Democratic Party through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – the so-called “stimulus act.” These programs have also significantly benefited the wind industry.

Two policies have been critical. The first is the Section 1603 Treasury Grant Program (TGP), which took the 30 percent investment tax credit passed in 2005 and allowed it to be claimed as a grant. [4]

This may seem like a trivial change on the surface. However, big power generation projects, renewable or otherwise, don’t get built without financing. And as developers often do not have the tax liability to benefit from tax incentives, it was necessary to find partners who did. When the tax equity market dried up during the recession, this got much harder. [5]

The Section 1603 program was a simple work-around. The logic was that if developers don’t have access to tax equity, let them claim the credit as a grant at the beginning of construction. This ability for them to benefit from the subsidy even during the recession determined the enormous success of the program.[6]

The second critical policy move in the stimulus was funding the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) pre-existing Loan Guarantee Program to the tune of $16 billion. Eighty-seven percent of this was used to back loans to power generation projects, mostly solar and wind, which otherwise would have had a difficult time accessing financing. A relatively small portion of this money went to fund technology start-ups – including Solyndra.[7]

These may seem like minor policy moves. However, the TGP and DOE Loan Guarantee Program have funded a large number of wind and solar projects, with the TGP alone funding 13.5 GW of projects – a critical support for these industries during the recession.[8]

Failures of the media

However, this is clearly not the picture that arises from media coverage of the DOE loan guarantee program, over which a great deal of ink has been spilled in the last year. Most articles fail entirely to mention project funding and instead focus entirely on the small percentage of loan guarantees to technology companies in a manufactured debate over the merit of a DOE loan guarantee program and whether the government should “pick winners” among technologies.

Context is sorely missing here. The use of loan guarantees at the DOE is hardly a novel application; no fewer than 12 federal agencies employ loan guarantees, with many of these agencies, particularly Housing and Urban Development (HUD), utilizing such loan guarantees at a much greater scale. HUD employed $623 billion in 2012 alone.[9]

Concern about budgetary impacts is also moot; the program contains a fund to cover any loan defaults, and at the end of 2011, had paid for itself with fees from project participants.[10]

So why is our media coverage of this issue so poor? There may be several reasons. Denial of global warming at Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and other publications is well documented, and editorial biases against renewables and in favor of incumbent fossil fuel industries is likely related.[11]

But this does not explain shoddy reporting and misleading editorials by a variety of other media sources including the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Forbes, often from guest contributors.[12]

Which raises larger questions. Are reporters and editors merely ill-informed and lazy in their research? Are they choosing sensationalism over reporting relevant facts? Has the American media become uninterested in critical inquiry, and are reporters instead take their cues from the latest PR campaigns and politicians’ talking points?

The impact of climate silence

One would expect that the champions of these policies in the Democratic Party, particularly in the Obama Administration, to at least make a point of correcting the worst distortions by both the Republican Party and the media. However, from its rhetoric, one has to wonder whether the Obama Administration is actually proud of these accomplishments.

In the second debate, which covered energy, President Obama mentioned solar and other renewable energy sources twice. He spent far more of his time arguing that he was a greater supporter of expanded domestic oil and gas drilling than the Republicans.

Of course, there would be no urgency behind the work that Obama and the Democratic Party have done for renewables if there were no climate change, and the Presidential debates offered a view of a whitewashed world without such realities. In one vice presidential and three presidential debates, the word “climate” was never mentioned, let alone “global warming”.

The Democratic Party may pass policies that build solar and wind capacities. However, in their messaging, they have capitulated to the fossil fuel industries, a dumbed-down mainstream media and the talking points of their opponents, remaining on the defensive for what, in hindsight, will likely emerge as their greatest accomplishments.

Drowning in ignorance

The gross failures of both the US media and our political leaders would be less serious were it not for the magnitude of the issue. Global warming, climate change and the transformation of our civilization’s energy systems are not just any issues. They are the defining issues of our generation. According to the International Energy Agency, under current policies and energy use we are looking at a long-term average increase in global temperatures of six degrees centigrade.[13]

The slew of catastrophic changes to our agriculture, our world, our civilization and the biosphere in general that will be caused by such a change are hard to fathom. With the shift to renewable energy, we have hope of averting the worst consequences of this change and leave our children a world they can inhabit. Given the leadership role that the United States holds geopolitically, as well as our position as the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, it is critical that we be part of this transformation.

A clear understanding of existing policies and environmental consequences are both necessary starting points for a coherent national discussion of these issues. Yet between the misrepresentations by the fossil fuel industries and their allies in the Republican Party, the failure of the Democratic Party to explain its policies and the cluelessness of the mainstream media, the discussion that we are having is anything but informed.

We are already starting to see serious events which bear the mark of a changing climate; notably the failure of Russia’s wheat crop and subsequent export ban in 2010 due to heat waves and the failure of the US corn crop in 2012 due to drought, which led to subsequent spikes in grain prices and which will lead to an estimated 16% increase in corn prices during the 2012-2013 season. [14]

The stakes for inaction could not be higher. One of the consequences that we face in the 21st century is rising sea levels, which will inundate coastal cities. Our civilization is literally in danger of drowning. And if we do drown in the 21st century, we will be able to say that we drowned as the result of ignorance as much as anything.

Christian Roselund has been writing about the solar industry for the past two and a half years as a correspondent for online trade publication Solar Server ( Prior to that, he served as communications director for an energy policy nonprofit in Louisiana and worked as a journalist covering post-Katrina New Orleans for a variety of radio networks and shows including Pacifica Network, National Radio Project, Air America and various NPR shows.

“American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) U.S. Wind Industry Third Quarter 2012 Market Report,” AWEA, October 2012, p. 4; “US Solar Industry Year in Review 2008,” Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), March 2009, U.S. Solar Market Insight Report 2012 Q2, SEIA, GTM Research, September 2012, p. 2.

“Utility-scale Solar Projects in the United States Operating, Under Construction, or Under Development,” SEIA, October 2012, p. 2, “American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) U.S. Wind Industry Third Quarter 2012 Market Report,” AWEA, October 2012, p. 4.

Western Wind and Solar Integration Study,” National Renewable Energy Laboratories, May 2010, p. 3.

SEIA, 1603 Treasury Program grant.

The return – and returns of tax equity for US renewable projects,” Bloomberg New Energy Finance, p.1, November 2012.

SEIA, 1603 Treasury Program.

“Beyond Solyndra: An Analysis of DOE’s Loan Guarantee Program,” Bloomberg Government, p. 3, December 1, 2011.

“Preliminary Analysis of the Jobs and Economic Impacts of Renewable Energy Projects Supported by the §1603 Treasury Grant Program,” Daniel Steinberg, Gian Porro, Marshall Goldberg, National Renewable Energy Laboratories, April 2012; Solar Server interview with Marcu Hoehner of EuPD Research, conducted October 2011, Bloomberg Government, “Beyond Solyndra,” p. 9-10, December 1st, 2011.

“Beyond Solyndra,” Bloomberg Government, December 1st, 2011, p. 7.

“Beyond Solyndra,” December 1st, 2011, p. 3

“Prime Time Fox News and WSJ Editorial Climate Coverage Mostly Wrong,” Steve Mirsky, Scientific American, September 21st, 2012; “Wall Street Journal attacked over climate change denial,” The Week, February 2, 2012.

“Obama’s Solyndra scandal reeks of the Chicago Way,” John Kass, Chicago Tribune, September 18th, 2011, “Solyndra: Politics infused Obama energy programs,” Washington Post, Joe Stephens and Carol Leonnig, December 25th, 2012; ” You thought Solyndra was bad? There’s more on the way,” Larry Bell, Forbes, February 16th, 2012.; “Making Sense of Solyndra,” Darren Samuelsohn, Politico, September 15th, 2011.

World Energy Outlook 2011,” International Energy Agency, p. 2, IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol, December 1st, 2011, interview with NTV MSNBC, Turkey.

“Global Grain Production at Record High Despite Extreme Climatic Events,” WorldWatch Institute, September 25th, 2012; “Global food prices rise in July due to extreme weather,” BBC News, August 9, 2012.