’60 Minutes’ does about-face on cleantech

In 2010, Bloom Energy emerged out of “stealth” mode by engineering a preview on the CBS news program “60 Minutes.” The frothy segment, produced by Shachar Bar-On, featured correspondent Lesley Stahl declaring that Bloom’s (unproven) fuel cell technology sounded “dazzling.” It was quite the puff piece, and the kick-off to all kinds of media coverage of the Sunnyvale-based start-up.

Now Bar-On and Stahl are back, with a segment that aired Sunday called “The Cleantech Crash.”  The basic thesis is this: “Despite billions invested by the U.S. government in so-called ‘Cleantech’ energy, Washington and Silicon Valley have little to show for it.”

The piece was puzzling for several reasons.

First, there was absolutely no mention of climate change. None. That’s the whole point of cleantech, after all: using the promise of technology and innovation to try to wean our economy off of fossil fuels.

It’s unclear why this piece aired now: what, exactly, is the news hook?

And it seems to confuse the federal support for clean technology that arose from the stimulus funding with the bets that venture capitalists in Silicon Valley have made on the sector, as Katie Fehrenbacher astutely notes at GigaOm.

Yes, the federal government poured more than $90 billion into cleantech, as we reported after Congress passed the stimulus act: many of the companies succeeded, and some of them failed. Cue to the footage of President Obama walking through the now shuttered Solyndra plant.

But “Washington and Silicon Valley have little to show for it?”

Come on. It’s 2014.

There’s a token throw away line about Tesla Motors, which had a fantastic year by any measure and has more than 6,000 employees. But nothing in the piece about Agua Caliente, California Valley Solar Ranch or Ivanpah, massive solar projects that were not only funded by the DOE’s 1705 program but are up and running.

The segment featured Vinod Khosla as its sage, Dream Big, Sand Hill Road voice. Viewers get to see Khosla walk Stahl through a KiOR plant in Mississippi. The focus on KiOR was odd: KiOR isn’t doing that great, but the biofuel company wasn’t the recipient of a big DOE loan.

Since Stahl spent so much time on Bloom Energy four years ago, why not check in on them?

Nuclear projects got massive DOE loans too: how about something on that?

And I’m not sure what the “Cleantech Crash” refers to, exactly: In the past four years, the United States has more than doubled electricity generation from wind and solar, even as we’ve experienced a boom in domestic oil and natural gas production. Greenhouse gas emissions in the United States are falling. Companies like SolarCity have become the darlings of Wall Street. Venture investment in the sector is down, but strategic partners are swooping in.

As a highly-produced show, its clear that 60 Minutes took its time with this piece. Jonathan Silver, who used to oversee the loan program for the DOE, tweeted Monday that he spoke to the producer for over an hour but “facts did not seem to affect his analysis.” But for all the time spent on the segment, there’s no there there.

CBS News image from 60 Minutes






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