Two weeks ago, 60 Minutes aired a 14-minute segment called “The Cleantech Crash.”
The segment was not well-received by the cleantech industry.
At least half a dozen other equally negative responses to 60 Minutes have appeared in the digital media over the past two weeks.
While many of those responses raised relevant facts about the cleantech industry, none of them addressed the most critical claim 60 Minutes actually made about cleantech.
“Cleantech was dealt a hammer blow by this: plentiful, inexpensive and relatively clean domestic natural gas,” said CBS reporter Lesley Stahl.
Shale gas has largely undercut the case for scaling up investments in renewable energy – at least in the near-term. In my view, this was the only meaningful claim that 60 Minutes made about cleantech.
Like a growing number of people, I tend to agree with 60 Minutes. So does BrightSource Energy, which cited low natural gas prices when it pulled its IPO in 2012.
Indeed, natural gas prices were so low in 2012 that it displaced coal as the fuel of choice for electric power generators and pushed U.S. carbon emissions to their lowest level since 1994, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The segment did not say that the federal stimulus investment in cleantech was a complete failure.
“The stimulus investment wasn’t a total bust,” said Lesley Stahl. “It helped create the successful electric car company, Tesla. A few other companies are starting to show promise and loans are being repaid.”
The industry’s knee-jerk response to 60 Minutes is more troubling to me than anything said in the segment.
Does the cleantech industry appreciate how significantly shale gas has altered the energy landscape?
If Vinod Khosla’s response to 60 Minutes is any indication, it does not.
“At scale, new technologies must compete with conventional fossil fuels on both price and performance – in the U.S., as well as in India and China,” said Khosla, in an open letter sent to 60 Minutes.
“Unconventional” oil and gas resources are setting the bar on price and performance for renewable energy.
A bonafide energy boom has begun in America and it is spawned a slate of new risks and opportunities. Over the next 20 years, the wealth created capturing these opportunities will make the stimulus investment in cleantech seem like chump change.
Cleantech needs to adapt or die.
Based on the industry’s knee-jerk response to 60 Minutes, the latter outcome seems more likely than the former.
That would be a shame for cleantech investors and, in the longer term, a major setback in the fight against climate change.