WASHINGTON -- "60 Minutes" last Sunday ran a segment on what it described as the "crash" of the clean tech industry, detailing perceived failures in government support for the development of clean energy and other advanced technology. That segment has been widely criticized for leaving out crucial information about the state of the clean tech sector and over-emphasizing governmental failures.
The person who was actually in charge of the Department of Energy's loan program for much of its existence -- and who did not appear on "60 Minutes" -- talked to The Huffington Post this week about his objections to the segment.
"The program is actually a significant success," said Jonathan Silver, who served as the head of the Department of Energy's loan program from November 2009 to October 2011 and is now a clean energy investor and visiting distinguished senior fellow at Third Way. "It's unfortunate that the political climate in Washington succeeded in creating a different narrative about it."
Silver noted that some of the projects "60 Minutes" reporter Lesley Stahl cited as failures never got loans in the first place. They received research grants through other Department of Energy programs that have nothing to do with the loan program. "A number of the companies Stahl cites, like A123, Ener1 and Range Fuels, never received loans or loan guarantees," Silver said. (Stahl does reference "loans and grants" before rattling off the list of failures, but no distinction is made between the programs, which are managed by different offices. She also identifies those companies after naming Solyndra, which was infamously part of the loan program.)
"There have been remarkably few investment failures, considering the size of the program, the innovation embedded in these large commercial projects and the speed with which the funds were deployed. By and large, the few investment losses came early in the program, before the agency was fully staffed or had a robust set of policies and procedures in place."
Of the companies that received loans or loan guarantees underwritten by the Department of Energy, those that did subsequently fail represent less than 3 percent of the portfolio, Silver said. The loan program has assisted with a number of different types of energy projects, from nuclear power to carbon capture and storage technology, to solar, wind and advanced batteries. "Most of the projects supported by the agency are now up and running and beginning to pay back their loans."
Moreover, Silver points out, the DOE loan guarantee program criticized by "60 Minutes" was designed to make a profit in the long term. "People forget that these are loans, not grants," said Silver. "Not only do they get paid back, they get paid back with interest. When the investment cycle is complete, the government will actually have made a profit on the portfolio."
A spokesman for the program told HuffPost, "'60 Minutes' has a rich history of reporting about climate change. Sunday's story focused on the effectiveness of some of the biggest energy tech efforts to combat it coming out of the "cleantech" movement, centered in the Silicon Valley hi-tech community. Our story referred to the failed companies that received government help as having been the recipients of loans and grants from the Dept. of Energy, which declined '60 Minutes' repeated requests for an interview."
The "60 Minutes" segment also criticized the fact that automobile parts manufacturer Wanxiang has since bought several clean tech companies that received government funds. "There's something that just doesn't feel right about a Chinese company coming in and scooping it all up after the taxpayers put so much money into it," Stahl said in the segment.
But Silver points out that, although Wanziang is a Chinese company, it has been building plants in the U.S. -- and hiring American workers. "There's a curious kind of xenophobia about Ms. Stahl's comments," said Silver.
As other critics have pointed out, the "60 Minutes" segment didn't look at the underlying mission of the DOE's clean energy loans, either, which is to reduce climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions. "The program never even mentions climate change, yet the legislative language [that created the program] focuses on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of particulates," said Silver. "While the program has created many jobs, its success in reducing greenhouse gases is overlooked and very dramatic."