That last point is especially relevant to the national media, which are fixated on reporting the latest cost-benefit analyses of the strategies for weaning the nation off fossil fuels. Many of those estimates—from governmental organizations, think tanks, and special interest groups alike—foresee a “manageable” economic burden, but they all also assume that technologies like CCS and biofuels will be widely available. Those are bold assumptions, but the media rarely challenge them or ask what the environmental and economic implications would be if any one of them doesn’t pan out. In that respect, coverage of wind and solar power is somewhat simpler—we know that the technology works. According to a recent (and little-covered) National Academies of Sciences report, the main barriers to expanding wind and solar power are their high cost, a lack of transmission capacity, and sustained policies (such as production tax credits) that encourage wider deployment. In other words, the challenges are primarily political and economic rather than technological. Still, explaining all that is a big challenge for journalists.
Blowing in the Wind
Press coverage of technologies such as wind often relies more on pronouncements from politicians and the business community than on hard truths from technical experts. A case in point is billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens’s campaign to promote homegrown clean energy as a way to wean the U.S. off foreign oil. Since unveiling “The Pickens Plan” in July 2008, he has benefited from mountains of free media in addition to the tens of millions he has reportedly poured into advertising. A centerpiece of the plan was his highly touted—and heavily covered—commitment to build the world’s largest wind farm in the Texas panhandle. But when Pickens quietly shelved the plan—at least temporarily—with $2 billion in wind turbines already on order, the coverage was far more cursory. An AP story last November, in which Pickens mentioned at a conference that he was putting the wind farm project on hold, received little attention. Anniversary stories this summer on the Pickens plan noted the wind farm’s demise, but provided little substantial coverage of what killed it: the financial and technical problems of getting new transmission lines to link his remote West Texas wind turbines to the Texas electrical grid. For that matter, why weren’t there stories along the way about this large and very plausible obstacle to the Pickens plan?
Transmission lines are not the only problem with the development of wind power. There’s the long start-up time, the high capital investment costs, and debates over environmental and aesthetic concerns, particularly in places like Cape Cod, where local groups have fought a proposed offshore wind farm for eight years. There’s a selective-numbers issue, too. On the up side, “wind power accounted for 42% of all new electrical generation added to the U.S. grid last year,” as Bryan Walsh noted in a piece in Time magazine in June called “Can Wind Power Get Up To Speed?” But it has a long way to go. “Wind still makes up less than 3% of America’s total electricity generation,” Walsh wrote. “Even at current rates of growth, that figure is unlikely to change soon.”
Without both numbers, the coverage is overly optimistic. Take the Des Moines Register’s reporting on President Obama’s Earth Day trip in April to Trinity Structural Towers, a wind turbine manufacturing plant in Newton, Iowa. Obama touted his ten-year, $150 billion clean-energy plan, predicting that an estimated 250,000 jobs and as much as 20 percent of the country’s electricity would come from wind by 2030. The Register quoted these numbers but failed to add the president’s own caveat about the tiny percentage of power that wind currently provides. The emphasis was on the boon for Iowa and a state official’s enthusiastic comment that, “Iowa companies will have opportunities wherever the wind is.”