It has been a busy couple of days. Since 60 Minutes aired The Cleantech Crash on Sunday night, I have gotten quite a few emails and phone calls seeking more details, comments, or a clarification of my positions. In the previous article I wrote a “Quick Response” to the piece. Today I try to fill in some gaps. This isn’t a critique of the entire report. It’s just the back story on how I became involved, and includes some of the things we discussed that didn’t make it on air.
Let me make it clear that 60 Minutes did not take me out of context. My words were correct, in context, and I stand behind them. But only a small portion of my interview could be broadcast, and as a result a lot of issues that we covered were not aired. So, here’s the rest of the story.
Discussing Advanced Biofuels with Lesley Stahl. Photo from CBS.
Before the Interview
Back in September 2013, I was contacted by one of Lesley Stahl’s producers at 60 Minutes through LinkedIn. He indicated that he wanted to speak to me about a story they were working on, and we set up a time to talk.
A couple of days later we spoke, and he indicated that he wanted to talk to me about some of the articles I have written about advanced biofuels. Particularly, they were interested in why advanced biofuels had fallen so far short of expectations. Since I have written quite a lot on that — including criticisms of those who made inflated claims that would lead to consumption of tax dollars while delivering no actual fuel — I was able to provide a pretty thorough historical picture on the phone.
I indicated in our discussions that I am not anti-cleantech. I have been involved in cleantech off and on for many years, and my job would currently be characterized as cleantech. I view cleantech as an important part of our energy picture, and I believe that areas like solar power will continue their history of rapid growth.
I didn’t hear back from them for a couple of weeks, but then they asked if I could come to New York in mid-October to be interviewed by Lesley Stahl. Of course those who know me know that energy is my passion, so it was a no-brainer to do an interview on energy policy. I was just a little concerned about whether the context of my answers would survive the editing process.
At no point prior to the broadcast did they tell me what the overall story was about. I didn’t know who else was being interviewed, or which questions were being asked of them. All I had to go by were the questions I was asked in the preliminary interviews and in the studio, and the answers I gave. I surmised that the full story was most likely going to focus on Vinod Khosla’s role, or would perhaps be about advanced biofuels or more broadly about cleantech in general. I also didn’t know if my answers might influence the direction of the story, in which case “negative” questions may not necessarily imply a negative outcome. But I saw the finished product for the first time with everyone else who saw the live broadcast on Sunday.
In the Studio
I was in the studio at CBS Broadcast Center for over an hour. I am going to paraphrase parts of the discussion here based on notes I made after the interview.
The first thing Lesley Stahl said once the cameras were rolling was “Cleantech is dead. What killed it?”
Maybe my answer to that question had some influence on Lesley’s thinking, because she posed a milder variation of the question to Steven Koonin, who was interviewed at a later date. She asked him “Is cleantech dead?” His response (which was aired) was almost the same as mine. My response was “Cleantech isn’t dead” and as we drilled down into what was doing well and what wasn’t, I said “some parts are on life support” which was the exact phrase Koonin used.
I mentioned that Tesla Motors was a very successful story thus far, and I said I would not bet against Elon Musk. She acknowledged that everyone held up Tesla as a cleantech success (and that was mentioned in the finished story), but that beyond that there didn’t seem to be a lot of success.
I replied that solar power is growing exponentially, and prices are plummeting. I said that in my view, the future belongs to solar power (something I wrote in 2007 in The Future is Solar). Wind power continues to rise dramatically. See this graphic I created last summer and posted in Renewable Energy Status Update 2013. It’s hard to look at that and argue that cleantech is dead:
I said that even though our ethanol policy has its critics (including me), the enormous growth of ethanol production would be considered a success in that the policy was designed to achieve that. (The problem is our ethanol policy created an industry that isn’t self-sufficient). In reply, she said “But ethanol has some problems, right?” I said “Well that’s a whole different story.” She said “That IS a different story. Let’s leave that one alone.”
At one point Lesley said something to the effect “Cleantech seems like such a great idea. Don’t we need cleantech?” I answered that indeed it is important, and indeed we do. Had a few exchanges like that survived the edits, I think she would have come across as more balanced than how she came across in the finished version. I have to say that her overall interview with me was pretty balanced — not just regarding my answers but most of her questions to me were balanced.
But most of my interview focused on advanced biofuels, and what had gone wrong there. In a nutshell — and this explains my issue — some people who really had no knowledge of how to produce energy came on the scene about 10 years ago and promised a revolution. At times they were pushing decades-old technology because they had no historical perspective of the industry, and promoted it as new and cutting edge. But as I told her, there are fundamental reasons why converting plant material into fuel won’t obey Moore’s Law.
The reason I started writing about this issue is that some venture capitalists convinced the government to give them tax dollars to fund their learning curve. They reinvented the wheel because they didn’t know enough about which approaches had been tried and had commercially failed. And even worse, I knew that when they failed they would tarnish the credibility of the rest of the industry — which they ultimately did.
We spent a lot of time talking about Vinod Khosla, whom they described in the finished story as “the father of the Cleantech revolution.” The first clip of me on camera shows me saying “Vinod Khosla is very smart, but would you let him operate on your heart?” This was in response to a question from Lesley that was essentially “Vinod is a smart man. I have met him and interviewed him. How could he have made such huge mistakes?”
My response conveys that expertise in one field does not imply expertise in another. There are many examples of successful people from the computer industry making bad decisions in the energy business (including Bill Gates). So just as you wouldn’t want Vinod to operate on your heart just because he is a smart guy, neither should you afford him instant credibility in the energy business on the same basis. Can you imagine a successful oil man being called to Congress to testify about what needs to be fixed in Silicon Valley — and then giving him money to fix it?
While I said that I believe he is sincere and that his heart is in the right place, I also said that he didn’t know the energy business, but because he was well-known from Silicon Valley and politically connected he got federal and state governments to hand over tax dollars to fund his learning curve. Democrats and Republicans were both guilty. (Lesley was skeptical that political connections played a major factor). Tax dollars were wasted on approaches that have been tried over and over again.
We discussed what went wrong with Range Fuels. I covered this episode extensively in Range Fuels Goes Bust, Harms Biofuels Industry in the Process, and I have a list of my previous articles on Range Fuels at the end of that article. I also explained in detail why most advanced biofuels struggle to compete with oil, and we discussed my Fake Fire Brigade analogy.
I pointed out that I have no problem when investors fund these ventures — as in the case of KiOR, Gevo, and Amyris. I just have an issue with someone influencing energy policy who has no expertise in energy. When that happens we flush tax dollars down the toilet and we end up with advanced biofuel mandates that have to be rolled back by 99% because they were based on wishful thinking. (See Why I Don’t Ride a Unicorn to Work). I told her that if venture capitalists want to do this, that’s their business. But we shouldn’t use tax dollars for venture capitalism (a practice that has been termed “venture socialism.”)
On the Effective Use of Tax Dollars
I also said that it isn’t even the use of tax dollars that’s a problem. I support programs that encourage a transition away from oil and toward more sustainable forms of energy. There are many negatives associated with our consumption of fossil fuels, and our long history of dependence on them means they have a lot of built-in infrastructure advantages. We still import a lot of oil, but there are many compelling reasons to pursue locally produced energy. When there is a benefit to society, then I believe it is an acceptable use of tax dollars to pursue that benefit.
But in many cases, we have funded advanced biofuel projects that even the Department of Energy said had little chance of success. The problem is often superficial due diligence, combined with a wish-based energy policy that can come about when someone pushes their “hopes and dreams” as fuel in the tank with “no down side.” (For more details, see my article Government Mandated Spending: A Lesson in Wasted Tax Dollars).
At the end of my interview, I expressed my concern about editing to the producer, and whether the finished story would really convey my views on what is a complex topic. I was told that they felt like they could fairly represent my views, and that Lesley was very happy with how the interview turned out.
In the end, I know there is a lot of video competing for 15 minutes of air time, but I think 60 Minutes could have avoided most of the controversy arising after the story if they had focused more on the venture capital crash in cleantech, or on the failure of the advanced biofuel initiatives. I have seen many who have criticized the story, yet add a qualifier like “But the criticisms on advanced biofuels were correct.” The story would have also had a different feel if they had aired certain other exchanges in which we discussed the benefits of cleantech.
But the story ultimately got a lot of exposure and got a lot of people talking. I saw someone suggest that the controversy probably generated more viewers than the original story. So maybe 60 Minutes is happy with the controversy and are happy with the outcome. I could have made the story much less controversial, but then it would have had a lot fewer viewers. I guess the question is whether you want a report that can more easily withstand criticism, or one that generates controversy and thus ultimately drives more traffic? I strive for the former, while they delivered the latter.