Tsk, tsk: Globe and Mail runs another misleading Wente column on green energy, electric vehicles

Okay, we all know Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente hates green energy, electric vehicles or any non-market efforts, really, to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. We know, even though she never discloses it (but should), that she’s on the board of directors of Energy Probe, a Canadian libertarian think tank that aggressively spreads its belief that climate change is a hoax and green energy such as wind and solar is a waste of time and resources. We also know that Wente likes to be a contrarian because it pumps up her profile. So I wasn’t so shocked when I read yet another column from her bashing the McGuinty government’s green energy policies, and in doing so, cherry picking the facts (or simply spinning them) to mislead her readers. What gets me, however, is how the editors at the Globe and Mail would let it into the paper, as is, and with the headline it was given.

BTW: Here’s my response to her last major assault on green energy back in April 2010.

Here’s my response to Wente’s most recent anti-green column, starting with the Globe’s headline: “Message to McGuinty: Most green-job schemes have been miserable failures.”

I can’t believe the headline writer and overseeing editor would allow the word “most” to make it into that headline. Wente doesn’t back up the “most” claim with any statistics, let alone credible ones. And the few examples she cites are small, based on someone else’s reporting (such as one problematic report in the New York Times) and/or come without any context.

Now, here’s Wente’s opening two paragraphs:

Dalton McGuinty has hit the campaign trail, and he’s paving it green. Earlier this month he announced that Ontario will pump $80-million into building charging stations for electric cars. “They are peppy, they are quiet, and the thing that I like best as a father, and ultimately a grandfather, I would hope, is that they’re clean,” he said. By 2020, he hopes, one out of 20 cars in Ontario will be electrically powered.

Meantime, Costco, the giant retailer, has pulled the plug on its electric car-charging stations, which it had installed in its California parking lots. The reason is that nobody uses them. Even China – which promised it would leapfrog the world in electric-car development – is backing off.

First, Costco is removing chargers that were installed back when GM introduced its EV1 electric vehicle to the market in the 1990s, before the cars were crushed and shredded. Costco says the chargers aren’t used, but that’s largely because electric vehicles only began hitting the market this year and the chargers that are in place are outdated (i.e. based on old standards) or simply stopped working, as you’ll read further down in this Daily Mail story.  Second, Costco is just one company seemingly going against the grain at a time when dozens of others, including Best Buy, IKEA, Walgreens and Lowe’s, are adding them. Personally, I don’t think retail stores are ideal places for EV charging systems, but the fact that so many big brand operations are beginning to test them and deploy them is a good sign. For Wente to cite the Costco decision as proof that EV charging systems, and thus electric vehicles, are being abandoned is quite the stretch. Also completely wrong is her unsupported comment that the Chinese are “backing off.” How she came to this conclusion is beyond me, but perhaps she didn’t read China’s 12th five-year plan. By 2015 China plans to have 4,000 charging stations and growth is expected to increase rapidly from there with plans to invest nearly $5 billion in charging infrastructure by 2020, at which point the country will have at least 10,000 public state-run charging locations, not including the tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of private home and business charging stations that are expected to emerge. That doesn’t sound like backing off.

Indeed, research firm Pike Research projected last week that there will be 7.7 million charging stations for EVs located in homes, workplaces and public spaces worldwide by 2017, with about 1.5 million of them located in the United States. So much for backing off. I’ll admit that’s an ambitious prediction, but the trend is clear — yet Wente cites a decision by Costco to remove obsolete charging systems as proof that the market for EVs and their associated charging infrastructure is fading.

The rest of the world has begun to discover that the green dream is a mirage. Across the U.S., federal, state and city governments have poured zillions into green schemes. Most have been miserable failures.

The city of Seattle, for example, got $20-million from the U.S. Department of Energy to retrofit houses and make them more energy efficient. The money was supposed to create 2,000 jobs and retrofit at least 2,000 homes. But by this month, only three homes had been retrofitted and only 14 jobs created. Even the greens admit the program is a total flop.

There’s that “most” word again, as in “most have been miserable failures.” She’s referring both generally to green energy initiatives spearheaded by government and specifically to a small $20-million household retrofit program in Seattle that didn’t deliver promised results. Forget that maybe, just maybe this specific program was mismanaged. So what? I mean, programs — private or public — get mismanaged and don’t produce results all the time. Hey, the market even screws up, too. You know, like how mismanagement by U.S. and European banks led to a worldwide financial crisis? No mention of that, of course. Also no mention of how successful the Canadian federal government’s EcoEnergy home retrofit program was before it was cancelled in 2010. In all, Ottawa committed $750 million to a program that encouraged Canadians to spend $4 billion of their own money. In doing so, those Canadians will save an average of $340 million a year every year on their energy bills — all of it money that will be reinvested in the Canadian economy each year. Also, the $4 billion spent by homeowners generated $250 million in GST revenue for the government. All of this also created thousands of jobs, contributing even more tax revenue to Ottawa. How can that be categorized as a miserable failure? It can’t, which is why Wente didn’t mention it — it didn’t fit with her message or her goal, which is to poke holes in the McGuinty government’s green energy and electric vehicle strategy and give momentum to the opposition PC party as a provincial election approaches.

In Massachusetts, the state government poured $58-million into a company called Evergreen Solar Inc. But Evergreen couldn’t compete with cheaper solar panels made in China. In March it closed its factory and laid off 800 people, and this month it declared bankruptcy. In Salinas, Calif., a company called Green Vehicles received a couple of million dollars in government grants to develop an electric car for freeways. It too went under. The mayor says the city will think twice before investing in other startups, regardless of how many jobs they’re supposed to create.

Yes, yes, companies go bankrupt, struggle, lay off people, often because they can’t compete with China or are simply poorly run. These companies are everywhere — biotech, information technology, Internet, automotive, etc., and more so with the U.S. economy continuing to struggle. So Wente cites a company that got lots of U.S. government money but simply couldn’t hit the home run it expected. Is that our standard now? That every bit of public investment MUST result in success? If that’s the case, hell — better shut off the tap that flows to the automotive, forestry and oil and gas sectors, eh? Here’s the thing: the U.S. is actually doing okay competing against the Chinese in solar. It’s exporting more solar product than it’s importing, contrary to popular belief.

Green projects, it turns out, don’t create many jobs, and those jobs are costly. Barack Obama recently visited a plant in Michigan to tout its investment in new battery technology. The plant got grants of $300-million, and expects to create 150 new jobs. That works out to $2-million a job. Then there’s SolFocus, a company in San Jose, Calif., that produces solar panels. The mayor called it an “enormously important” development for the city’s economy,” The New York Times reported. But the company assembles its solar panels in China, and its new headquarters employs just 90 people.

During his 2008 campaign, Mr. Obama promised to create five million green jobs over the next decade. But as The New York Times reported last week, “federal and state efforts to stimulate creation of green jobs have largely failed.”

At this point Wente hasn’t established that green projects don’t create jobs, but she goes ahead and makes this statement anyway, giving only a tiny snapshop of job creation by mentioning two more ventures — one an electric vehicle battery maker and the other a maker of solar panels. She talks about how one government investment in a battery maker worked out to $2-million a job, though she doesn’t talk about future job growth at that company that was seeded by this government money — she only talks about the situation as it stands today so early in the birth of this new market. And this is where Wente goes off tracks, referring to a recent New York Times report that was clearly the inspiration for her column in the first place. That is, she waited for a juicy story in a more left-leaning U.S. newspaper like the Times and used it as a way to legitimize her own biases on the green energy topic. After all, it’s juicy to quote the Times saying “federal and state efforts to stimulate creation of green jobs have largely failed.”

But the Times article was also a failure of journalism. As Joe Romm points out at Climate Progress, isn’t it kind of strange to declare a program a failure about two or three years into a 10-year mandate? As Romm writes, “Imagine if, in 1963, two years after JFK’s famous speech to Congress, the New York Times had run a story, ‘Space program fails to live up to promise.'” Let’s keep in mind as well that the space program wouldn’t have gone far either if, during that time, a U.S. Congress filled with anti-science, anti-government Tea Partiers prevented the flow of money into Kennedy’s vision. Obama’s goal is achievable but not when such programs are consistently under attack by state and federal legislators who have only one objective: to defeat and humiliate the U.S. president. This is Wente’s objective with respect to McGuinty, who is also facing resistance but has actually delivered so much more: 20,000-plus green jobs, and counting. Is that a failure? Wente mentions that job count, but she doesn’t directly call it a failure, preferring instead to breeze over results in Ontario and focus on negative outcomes in the U.S. market.

Maybe he should take a look at Spain, which also set out to become the solar-power capital of the world. Everything went fine, so long as the subsidies kept flowing. But when the world economy went south, the Spanish government couldn’t afford them any more and pulled the plug. Bye, bye solar, and bye, bye jobs. By one reckoning, Spain spent half a million euros for each green job it created.

The moral of the story is as clear as a row of giant wind turbines on the horizon. Governments that invest in risky, expensive and unproven technologies will probably lose big. The only way they are able to lure private investment is with generous subsidies and long-term contracts. And even then, the failure rate is high. Ontario has already attracted its share of “suitcase” companies that are here so long as the money flows, and not a moment longer. And when they go belly-up, guess who’s stuck with the bills?

It’s predictable that Wente again trots out the Spanish example, which she also used in her wind-bashing column a year earlier. It’s the only example she can really offer up, largely because Spain’s solar market did in fact go through troubles and it is one cautionary tale that’s worth learning from. However, Spain is not representative of the market and its health. Wente neglects to mention countries that are thriving, how quickly solar costs are falling, how worldwide investment in solar continues to grow at a healthy pace, and how Ontario solar manufacturers are saying they can deal with a 30 per cent reduction in the feed-in-tariff rate as part of a plan to eventually eliminate incentives. No question Ontario could have done a better job executing its green-energy programs, and while there may be the occasional dud along the way, what this province is doing is investing in a future that Wente apparently can’t see or appreciate, or maybe doesn’t want.

By the way, to call solar and wind and electric vehicles “unproven” technology is, well, wrong. This stuff works, and it works well. It’s no less proven than the iPhone or BlackBerry Wente carries on her hip. Is it risky? Yes, because the deck is stacked against it and folks like Wente don’t make it any easier. But risk is also a matter of perception. I mean, drilling deep in the Gulf of Mexico or North Sea is risky, and so is investing in the oil sands, and so is sending people deep underground to mine for coal.

Anyway, none of this is going to change Wente’s mind. But I do expect better journalism from her, at least on this issue. And I do expect the editors of the Globe and Mail to challenge unsubstantiated claims, even if they come from columnists.

17 thoughts on “Tsk, tsk: Globe and Mail runs another misleading Wente column on green energy, electric vehicles”

  1. “The plant got grants of $300-million, and expects to create 150 new jobs. That works out to $2-million a job.”

    It can be safe to assume that the job figures are correct on start-up. But the Government would be correct to expect that as the mentioned company grows, so would the employee numbers, thus decreasing dollars per job ratio immensely.

  2. Thank you Tyler. Between Wente and Neil Reynolds, the Globe’s editorial standards are becoming a sad joke. The great thing about people like Wente, though, is that they so beautifully hoist themselves on their own petard. She rails against governments taking early-stage risk in cleantech companies, but also craps all over the FIT Program.

    The way I see it, the essence of the FIT Program is actually about reducing risk to ratepayers- project development risk and cost overruns are borne by the private sector, and the ratepayer only pays for electricity actually delivered. Furthermore, they are locking in a fixed price for electricity over the long-term (and a fixed price that will come down as efficiencies start to take effect). Sure natural gas prices are low now, but who knows where they will be in 5-10-20 years.

    I wish the debate in Ontario was about genuine risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis, instead of the knee-jerk right wing tirade it has become. If Wente thinks that photovoltaics are unproven, she might want to check what technology has been powering satellites since she was a kid.

  3. To add to your counterpoint re:charging stations, Austin Energy (Austin municipal electric co). just announced the locations of 103 charging stations in the Austin, TX area.
    http://www.austinenergy.com/About%20Us/Newsroom/Press%20Releases/2011/chargingStations.html

    NB: However, from CO2 perspective it’s not clear that grid-charged (as opposed to solar charged) electric cars make sense in TX due to the fact that the large majority of electricity in TX is fossil fuel generated. Also the climate (Austin recently passed a record 70 days with temps above 100oF) means that EV range is reduced due to A/C req’ts.

  4. Maybe Wente should have brought up the great success Germany has had in becoming a worldwide leader in Solar and creating roughly 300,000 jobs there. Or how about the $36’000’000’000 Darlington will get to refurbish its reactors! Either way, good blog ill have to follow you.

  5. I appreciate the annoyance with cherry-picked and spun facts, but there’s more than a little of that in your own response, Mr. H….

    “We know, even though she never discloses it (but should), that she’s on the board of directors of Energy Probe, a Canadian libertarian think tank that aggressively spreads its belief that climate change is a hoax and green energy such as wind and solar is a waste of time and resources.”

    Why should she disclose it, exactly? How does she stand to make more money from her readers not knowing this, or less money if they do? Will she be getting kickbacks from Queen’s Park if some of its green initiatives are canned?

    “Also completely wrong is her unsupported comment that the Chinese are “backing off.” How she came to this conclusion is beyond me….”

    Maybe she read this article from Green Car reports:
    http://www.greencarreports.com/news/1065492_is-china-backing-away-from-electric-vehicles

    Took me 30 seconds on Google to find that. You’re right in that China may still have higher targets than we do, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t revising their expectations downward or that they aren’t right to do so.

    “She’s referring …specifically to a small $20-million household retrofit program in Seattle that didn’t deliver promised results. Forget that maybe, just maybe this specific program was mismanaged.”

    “Didn’t deliver promised results?” When you promise 2000 refits and jobs and deliver 1500, or 1200, or 1000, you haven’t delivered promised results. They targeted 2000 refits; they completed *3*. They promised 2000 jobs; they created *14*. That is crash-and-burn ruinous *failure*, Mr. H, and beyond reasonable explanation by simple “mismanagement”; it was either fundamentally impractical from the get-go or it was run from the beginning by people determined to exploit it unto its ruin, like the gangsters in GOODFELLAS.

    “So Wente cites a company that got lots of U.S. government money but simply couldn’t hit the home run it expected….”

    It didn’t fail to “hit a home run,” Mr. H; IT WENT OUT OF BUSINESS. It COLLAPSED. (The same way Solyndra did, just today; check it out.) You want to criticize Ms. Wente for her spin, don’t replace it with your own.

    Our standard can’t be that every bit of public investment must result in phenomenal success — but it can, should and must be that *on a general basis* it gets back more than it puts in. Risk is what *private* investors do with *their* money based on what they decide they can afford to lose; a government’s tolerance for what it can afford to lose of its *taxpayers’* money should always be *much* stricter.

    “At this point Wente hasn’t established that green projects don’t create jobs, but she goes ahead and makes this statement anyway….”

    No, Mr. H, what she said was, green projects don’t create *many* jobs; or paraphrasing to make her point more succintly, they don’t create *enough* jobs *cheaply* enough. What examples of government-subsidized green programs have created *more* jobs than they expected, or been successful enough to phase the subsidies *out*?

    Which is a parallel to your complaint about “unproven” technologies; it’s not that they’re physically or technologically unproven, but they’re *economically* and *logistically* unproven — they have never achieved economic and viable results equal or superior to the technologies they aim to replace. Some of that is due to financial interests, on *both* sides, distorting the playing field; at least as much if not more is due to the practical obstacles still in the process of being overcome (like the basic issues of intermittent supply and lack of economically viable energy storage technology). If you think photovoltaics are sufficiently “proven”, try running the UPS for a hospital’s ICU off a rooftop solar panel array without a fossil-fuel generator backup.

    I approve wholeheartedly of technological development, and applaud its passionate advocates. I want to see nonpolluting, renewable energy sources capable of powering our civilization as much as anyone. But there’s no denying that such advocates have a distressing tendency to try to run before they can walk; and when the government offers to subsidize the running shoes and the support railbars, that has an equally distressing tendency to attract those who are more interested in the subsidies than in what they’re supposed to subsidize. If Wente wishes to stand on the chariot and whisper in the Green Emperor’s ear, “Sic transit gloria viridia”, I think it rather a benefit than a problem.

  6. Stephen, my response was not intended to be the column that Wente should have written, it was a counterpoint to her that aimed to present the other side — i.e. to say it’s not as one-sided as she made it out to be. Your own reply to my posting would have been a better column to run in the Globe than Wente’s. She said “most” programs have been miserable failures. That seems clear to me. She didn’t seem to hedge her remarks the way you seem to think. There were elements of truth in what she wrote, but she exaggerated their significance measured against the larger pictures. Sure — there are problems, companies have failed, these are tough economic times, there has been some mismanagement out there, but I can point to examples of this in any industry, old and new. It’s amazing how people who keep harping on about subsidies and government support for these “new” and “unproven” technologies ignore the same when applied to existing, powerful and quite profitable industries, both when they started and when they were well equipped to support themselves.

    Why should she disclose her involvement with Energy Probe. Well, she’s a general columnist, so when she wades into energy issues she obviously is representing a viewpoint that the organization she’s involved with holds. It would be nice to know that connection. At the very least, when she quotes other board members from that organization — as she did in her wind-bashing article from a year earlier — she should disclose.

  7. BTW: By saying China was backing off electric vehicle charging stations, Wente was suggesting they were having second thoughts about EVs being the way to go. The article you cite merely says China has overly ambitious plans and has decided to re-evaluate them so it doesn’t over promise and under deliver. That’s not backing off, that’s being smart — but clearly they are committed to growth and driving the trend. So where the article asked the question: “Is China backing off from electric vehicles?”, Wente gave the answer: “Yes,” when that’s clearly not the case.

  8. Today, the business section of the Toronto Star carried an article by John Spear explaining the expensive mistake of signing the contract with Samsung.
    I prefer green, renewable energy where it makes sense, but rushing headlong into disastrous schemes like this one as well as the feed in tariffs reflects poorly on Ontario leadership.
    Letting one company to profit immensely while increasing an input cost of other manufacturing companies is not only unfair, but will result in more job loses than whatever Samsung will create.

  9. To Stephen J, Margaret Wente and others who claim that we have to have super strict ROI standards for _every_ public investment in alternative energy and/or think that only “free market” principles should apply to energy investment – totally agree _but only if we also_ apply the same standards to fossil fuel public investment.

    Let’s start by recouping the ~$4T wasted (NB: I guess it’s just tough nougies about the 100’s thousands of lives lost and millions ruined/immiserated, since we can’t get those back) on the last two Mideast wars ($1T (direct & indirect) from GW I, $3T ($1T direct, $2T indirect long term) and counting for the current one) with a tax on oil. At ~20M Barrels/day = 73B/yr for US+Canada, let’s say spread over 5years, that’s $4T/36.5B Barrels = ~$110/barrel tax. In personally meaningful terms gas would cost more than double the current US gas price, or $6/USgal. And make no mistake, we’re already paying for it now (even in Canada, i.e. how much has Canada flushed down the toilet in Iraq supporting ops), even if it doesn’t show up in the gas price.

    Therefore the reason to aggressively invest (as in take chances that may not pay out in every instance) in sustainable energy, and especially in very high ROI energy efficiency is because a) we’re **already wasting literally $T’s now** to try sustain the unsustainable fossil fuel economy, and b) the planet will cook and ruin the world and N. American economy anyway, if we don’t subsidize the aggressive build-up to a large scale (and therefore cost competitive, self-sustaining, eg. PV solar cost curve) sustainable energy based economy in very short order.

  10. Slight goof on math above, 20M BBl/day *365 = 7.3B BBl/yr * 5yrs = 36.5B BBl. Final $110/barrel tax calculation still valid, but wanted to show the correct math.

  11. “. It had been hoped that generous government subsidies and policy support would help domestic manufacturers like BYD to leapfrog better established overseas rivals by mass producing electric cars.

    But BYD have scaled back their ambitions after failing to find a market due to cost and technical concerns. Reflecting the lack of progress, prime minster Wen Jiabao recently published an article in a Communist party journal calling for a rethink of China’s “road map” towards alternative powertrain vehicles.

    In a report earlier this week, IHS Automotive, a Shanghai-based consultancy, said the sales increase for such vehicles is far behind the government’s timeframe. It noted too the poor performance of the Prius, which notched up a sole sale in a year when 13.8m new passenger cars were registered in China. Among them were 850,000 SUVs, a rise of 24%. Luxury car sales were also on the up and up, as I noted in an earlier article.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2011/aug/23/billion-cars-global-traffic-jam

  12. This is hilarious — there are how many plug-in electric vehicle models being sold globally today? Maybe a handful. And when did they go on sale? Mostly this year, and if earlier then on a limited basis aimed at fleets. How, on earth, can anyone declare anything about the success or failure of electric vehicles, not knowing the pace of innovation in this area and the speed at which battery costs are coming down and energy densities are expected to go up over the next five, 10 years?

    The Guardian blog post you refer to is a rip-off of this Financial Times article, which Wente seems to have regurgitated selectively: http://tinyurl.com/3at5add

    Hybrids aren’t plug-in electric vehicles, so I’m not alarmed that sales of hybrids are poor — i.e. one. There are plenty of ICE models on the market today that are more efficient fuel-wise than hybrids, so I think it’s smart — as the article states — that China is rethinking its definition of “new-energy vehicle” to include not just plug-in electric vehicles but also hybrids and efficient models of ICEs. The article notes that nothing in China has been changed, no plans have been altered — there has yet to be a backing away. What it says is that Chinese officials are thinking about it. But, as I said, even if they do expand this definition it’s a wise move — nobody ever said electric vehicles will occupy 100 per cent of the market, nor should they.

    The article quotes Bill Russo of Synergistics auto consultancy in Beijing, former head of Chrysler in China. “I believe this will not deter China from a long-term goal of pursuing such an endgame. They have planted the seeds for the future EV industry: it is just going to take much longer than they anticipated.” A little longer than anticipated. Like the economic recovery? Like, say, the recovery of our stock portfolios? Like, says, RIM coming out with its next-generation BlackBerry OS? Yes, BYD has “scaled back their ambitions,” but scaling back is not “backing away” — the former is moving forward less quickly, the latter is taking a step backward. There’s a big difference.

    These targets are part of a broader vision. Like McGuinty’s 50,000 green jobs by 2012, or Obama’s million electric cars by 2015. Is reaching 35,000 jobs a failure, or just 800,000 cars a failure? I guess that’s a matter of perspective, but I wouldn’t automatically declare so. Without goals we have nothing at which to aim, and while a bullseye is always nice maybe just getting on the board is a worthy accomplishment when the game’s just getting started.

  13. Ah … the targets aren’t actually important?
    That’s why targets are set to begin with – to measure progress.

    Why is it you get upset over a quote with facts, but don’t respond to some asinine lie about the cost of Darlington refurbs (the figure provided as the cost is the estimate on all of the 6 refurbs at Bruce, 4 at Darlington and 2 new builds)?

    You know who else would let that lie stand?
    Energy Probe.

  14. Never said targets aren’t important — I said not reaching them isn’t automatically an indication of failure, particularly when you’re referring to the introduction of a new technology or economic vision.

    I don’t consider nuclear new technology, so like you I don’t cut it as much slack when numbers — cost estimates, primarily — don’t match reality.

    Not sure what “quote with facts” you’re referring to, but I don’t remember getting upset about anything. Just offering counterpoints.

  15. Hi Tyler,

    Just catching up on my fun reading now, and I saw your post here. You’ll be interested to know that there’s a very similar but less coherent rant up on the Vancouver Sun’s pages:

    http://www.vancouversun.com/business/Greenest+city+moniker+Orwellian+nightmare/5350122/story.html

    About the Wente column I generally agree with you, but I especially agree with you that the Globe’s editorial standards are really awful. That in my opinion is the real problem. I have been shocked at the stuff the editors there will let through without fact-checking or without logic-checking on a number of subjects. Canadian journalism is generally lousy and late, and if I can be forgiven for making such an expansive claim, it’s an actual disservice to Canadian democracy. It’s like in our race to national mediocrity we’ve all forgotten to think. I feel this permeates the national discussion on energy as much as anything.

    Thanks on the other hand for your consistently hard work and to the other still too few bright lights out there.

Comments are closed.