Math is not that hard, but you have to get all the numbers in place before you perform the calculation. If you collect “5+3” and conclude the answer is “8,” that may seem well and good, but what if the left side of the equation is actually “5+3-5-10?”
Unfortunately, when it comes to energy politics and energy policy, many people who know this basic point have a tendency to exclude important figures from the left side of the equation nonetheless.
The most common cost excluded from calculations about energy is generally the social cost of pollution. That is rather stunning when you consider that the cost of pollution from coal can be significantly higher than the total cost of electricity from solar or wind power.
In a few articles published on NJ.com in recent months, some readers and I have noticed such a problem. In this piece, this piece, and this piece, pollution costs were not included in the pointed yet deceivingly incomplete discussions of energy costs. There were some vague statements about climate change, but those were quickly flipped on their head and considered unimportant. “The intention is noble — to combat climate change. … But good intentions are not enough,” one article read. I asked the writer, Tom Moran, if he had any sources or figures for examining societal costs (aka externalities) from pollution, but he didn’t respond.
Furthermore, in all of these articles, the writers didn’t mention historical subsidies at all. They did not compare the subsidies that have been provided to coal and natural gas power plants — and continue to be provided directly or indirectly. They appear concerned about subsidies for clean energy, but not about subsidies for dirty energy. I also asked about this and didn’t get a response.
Those are common exclusions in articles about clean energy subsidies. They are grave exclusions, but they are so common that I can’t say I expect better from non-cleantech reporters. However, there was another misleading aspect to this NJ.com coverage that caught me off-guard. Writer Tom Moran mentioned that support for solar raises electricity prices a great deal, but after all the scary language, the numbers didn’t match the rhetoric. In this article, for example, he estimated that new solar subsidies “could … leave you paying” $3.42 more per month, and the figure would presumably be lower for poor families that typically use much less electricity. I asked Moran for more information on the source of these estimates and whether there was any evidence that solar subsidies would dramatically increase electricity bills for the poor. I did not receive a response.
I also asked Moran whether he attempted to compare the electricity price increase to local economic benefits from the solar industry and lower societal costs from pollution? He didn’t respond.
In the end, I didn’t get answers from the reporters, but I found that the NJ.com coverage of a solar support scheme didn’t include any discussion or figures of findings regarding the societal costs of pollution, which have been found by various research to be anywhere from several cents to dozens of cents per kWh. There was also no discussion of historical energy subsidies, even though historical fossil fuel subsidies have dwarfed clean energy subsidies, and they continue to be in the trillions globally.
I also learned that reporter Tom Moran greatly exaggerated the degree of forecasted electricity price increases, and I didn’t provide any supportive information even for those $3.42 per month forecasts.
The solar industry comes with notable benefits beyond the health/emissions benefits. Another major benefit is the economic boost to the local economy from job creation. Again, I found no discussion of the economic benefits of solar in the NJ.com stories. When I asked if the reporters had looked into it and had tried to compare local economic benefits with extra costs, I got no response, but I’m sure the economic benefits are above $0.
Will NJ.com improve its “reporting” on energy subsidies? We’ll see.