Policy: Environment & Energy

Clean energy groups push back against '60 Minutes' report

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Clean energy supporters pushed back Sunday against a "60 Minutes" report that cast the Obama administration's $91 billion clean energy stimulus as a potentially ill-advised investment of taxpayer dollars.

“It’s surprising that the '60 Minutes' piece on renewable energy was so far behind the times. Any keen observer of the industry knows that deployment is up, costs are down and consumers are saving money — more so now than ever before," said Michael Brower, interim chief executive with the American Council on Renewable Energy, which said the sector drew $240 billion in private investment worldwide and added 110,000 jobs in the United States in 2012.

The "60 Minutes" report portrayed the Obama administration's green stimulus program as a bust in terms of jobs created and the number of U.S. firms that benefited from that spending. Energy experts, former administration officials and investors commented the stimulus and overall clean energy sector have not been as successful as anticipated, though many of those interviewed maintained optimism for the future.

"I didn't say it would create jobs. Other people did," said Steven Koonin, who served as the Undersecretary for Science with the Energy Department between May 2009 and November 2011.

Still, Koonin supported the overall stimulus program. Speaking of the oft-targeted federal loan guarantee program that awarded solar-panel maker Solyndra $535 million before it went bankrupt in 2011, Koonin noted that program has contributed more hits than misses, saying,"I think it was good value for the money."

Clean energy boosters emphasized that point. The American Council on Renewable Energy noted that Solyndra and other failed firms account for 3 percent of the federal loan program's portfolio. And supporters have often noted the loan guarantee program has suffered far fewer losses than what Congress budgeted for.

Ryan Cunningham, founder and principal of Cunningham Strategic Communications, which counts clean energy businesses and organizations as clients, said, "That's a home run by any but the most partisan standards."

The issue has certainly been a partisan one over the years, as Republicans have criticized the White House for spending taxpayer dollars on what they considered risky ventures that amount to the federal government picking winners and losers. Democrats, meanwhile, have maintained the federal support helped create manufacturing jobs and will expand deployment of clean energy, in turn reducing carbon emissions to combat climate change.

House Republicans led the charge against Solyndra, which they used to criticize the Obama administration's broader efforts on clean energy.

An Energy and Commerce Committee probe of the loan ultimately didn't support GOP claims that the Energy Department awarded the loan as a political kickback for campaign donations to Obama, but still called it a "cautionary tale."

Republicans also have slammed the green stimulus for its effect on jobs, which they say has been underwhelming for the billions of dollars poured into the effort. They also have questioned the program's wisdom as Chinese firms have snatched up several federally backed firms after they filed for bankruptcy.

Wanxiang America is one of those firms.

The Elgin, Ill.-based subsidiary of the Chinese automobile parts manufacturer bought federally backed battery-maker A123 Systems and electric car firm Fisker Automotive after those firms filed for bankruptcy.

The firm's president, Pin Ni, told "60 Minutes" that "clean tech is not going well" but noted that the Obama administration's investments might pay off in the future.

Advocates say those federal dollars are paying off now.

Daniel J. Weiss, director of the energy and climate program at the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress, said the stimulus has performed as anticipated, generating 55,000 direct jobs from the loan guarantee program alone.

Supporters also say the investments have helped drive clean energy prices lower, spurring wider adoption of clean technology in the U.S.

The American Wind Energy Association responded to the report Sunday via Twitter, commenting that "mainstream renewable energy is working today and doesn't deserve to be the drive-by victim of this story on another topic."

The Solar Energy Industries Association commented that the crash in solar prices since 2011 — it put the figure at 60 percent — has benefited consumers and an industry that employs 120,000 people across 6,100 U.S. companies.

"If 60 Minutes had taken just two minutes to call us, they could have gotten some of their facts straight. In truth, America's solar energy industry just closed the books on a record-shattering year in 2013," said Ken Johnson, vice president for the group.

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