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By Robert Rapier on Jan 8, 2014 with 23 responses

60 Minutes: The Rest of the Story



It has been a busy couple of days. Since 60 Minutes aired The Cleantech Crash on Sunday night, I have gotten quite a few emails and phone calls seeking more details, comments, or a clarification of my positions. In the previous article I wrote a “Quick Response” to the piece. Today I try to fill in some gaps. This isn’t a critique of the entire report. It’s just the back story on how I became involved, and includes some of the things we discussed that didn’t make it on air.

Let me make it clear that 60 Minutes did not take me out of context. My words were correct, in context, and I stand behind them. But only a small portion of my interview could be broadcast, and as a result a lot of issues that we covered were not aired. So, here’s the rest of the story.

60 Minutes Screenshot for Blog

Discussing Advanced Biofuels with Lesley Stahl. Photo from CBS.

Before the Interview

Back in September 2013, I was contacted by one of Lesley Stahl’s producers at 60 Minutes through LinkedIn. He indicated that he wanted to speak to me about a story they were working on, and we set up a time to talk.

A couple of days later we spoke, and he indicated that he wanted to talk to me about some of the articles I have written about advanced biofuels. Particularly, they were interested in why advanced biofuels had fallen so far short of expectations. Since I have written quite a lot on that — including criticisms of those who made inflated claims that would lead to consumption of tax dollars while delivering no actual fuel — I was able to provide a pretty thorough historical picture on the phone.

I indicated in our discussions that I am not anti-cleantech. I have been involved in cleantech off and on for many years, and my job would currently be characterized as cleantech. I view cleantech as an important part of our energy picture, and I believe that areas like solar power will continue their history of rapid growth.

I didn’t hear back from them for a couple of weeks, but then they asked if I could come to New York in mid-October to be interviewed by Lesley Stahl. Of course those who know me know that energy is my passion, so it was a no-brainer to do an interview on energy policy. I was just a little concerned about whether the context of my answers would survive the editing process.

At no point prior to the broadcast did they tell me what the overall story was about. I didn’t know who else was being interviewed, or which questions were being asked of them. All I had to go by were the questions I was asked in the preliminary interviews and in the studio, and the answers I gave. I surmised that the full story was most likely going to focus on Vinod Khosla’s role, or would perhaps be about advanced biofuels or more broadly about cleantech in general. I also didn’t know if my answers might influence the direction of the story, in which case “negative” questions may not necessarily imply a negative outcome. But I saw the finished product for the first time with everyone else who saw the live broadcast on Sunday.

In the Studio

I was in the studio at CBS Broadcast Center for over an hour. I am going to paraphrase parts of the discussion here based on notes I made after the interview.

The first thing Lesley Stahl said once the cameras were rolling was “Cleantech is dead. What killed it?”

Maybe my answer to that question had some influence on Lesley’s thinking, because she posed a milder variation of the question to Steven Koonin, who was interviewed at a later date. She asked him “Is cleantech dead?” His response (which was aired) was almost the same as mine. My response was “Cleantech isn’t dead” and as we drilled down into what was doing well and what wasn’t, I said “some parts are on life support” which was the exact phrase Koonin used.

I mentioned that Tesla Motors was a very successful story thus far, and I said I would not bet against Elon Musk. She acknowledged that everyone held up Tesla as a cleantech success (and that was mentioned in the finished story), but that beyond that there didn’t seem to be a lot of success.

I replied that solar power is growing exponentially, and prices are plummeting. I said that in my view, the future belongs to solar power (something I wrote in 2007 in The Future is Solar). Wind power continues to rise dramatically. See this graphic I created last summer and posted in Renewable Energy Status Update 2013. It’s hard to look at that and argue that cleantech is dead:

Renewable Electricity

I said that even though our ethanol policy has its critics (including me), the enormous growth of ethanol production would be considered a success in that the policy was designed to achieve that. (The problem is our ethanol policy created an industry that isn’t self-sufficient). In reply, she said “But ethanol has some problems, right?” I said “Well that’s a whole different story.” She said “That IS a different story. Let’s leave that one alone.”

At one point Lesley said something to the effect “Cleantech seems like such a great idea. Don’t we need cleantech?” I answered that indeed it is important, and indeed we do. Had a few exchanges like that survived the edits, I think she would have come across as more balanced than how she came across in the finished version. I have to say that her overall interview with me was pretty balanced — not just regarding my answers but most of her questions to me were balanced.

But most of my interview focused on advanced biofuels, and what had gone wrong there. In a nutshell — and this explains my issue — some people who really had no knowledge of how to produce energy came on the scene about 10 years ago and promised a revolution. At times they were pushing decades-old technology because they had no historical perspective of the industry, and promoted it as new and cutting edge. But as I told her, there are fundamental reasons why converting plant material into fuel won’t obey Moore’s Law.

The reason I started writing about this issue is that some venture capitalists convinced the government to give them tax dollars to fund their learning curve. They reinvented the wheel because they didn’t know enough about which approaches had been tried and had commercially failed. And even worse, I knew that when they failed they would tarnish the credibility of the rest of the industry — which they ultimately did.

Vinod Khosla

We spent a lot of time talking about Vinod Khosla, whom they described in the finished story as “the father of the Cleantech revolution.” The first clip of me on camera shows me saying “Vinod Khosla is very smart, but would you let him operate on your heart?” This was in response to a question from Lesley that was essentially “Vinod is a smart man. I have met him and interviewed him. How could he have made such huge mistakes?”

My response conveys that expertise in one field does not imply expertise in another. There are many examples of successful people from the computer industry making bad decisions in the energy business (including Bill Gates). So just as you wouldn’t want Vinod to operate on your heart just because he is a smart guy, neither should you afford him instant credibility in the energy business on the same basis. Can you imagine a successful oil man being called to Congress to testify about what needs to be fixed in Silicon Valley — and then giving him money to fix it?

While I said that I believe he is sincere and that his heart is in the right place, I also said that he didn’t know the energy business, but because he was well-known from Silicon Valley and politically connected he got federal and state governments to hand over tax dollars to fund his learning curve. Democrats and Republicans were both guilty. (Lesley was skeptical that political connections played a major factor). Tax dollars were wasted on approaches that have been tried over and over again.

We discussed what went wrong with Range Fuels. I covered this episode extensively in Range Fuels Goes Bust, Harms Biofuels Industry in the Process, and I have a list of my previous articles on Range Fuels at the end of that article. I also explained in detail why most advanced biofuels struggle to compete with oil, and we discussed my Fake Fire Brigade analogy.

I pointed out that I have no problem when investors fund these ventures — as in the case of KiOR, Gevo, and Amyris. I just have an issue with someone influencing energy policy who has no expertise in energy. When that happens we flush tax dollars down the toilet and we end up with advanced biofuel mandates that have to be rolled back by 99% because they were based on wishful thinking. (See Why I Don’t Ride a Unicorn to Work). I told her that if venture capitalists want to do this, that’s their business. But we shouldn’t use tax dollars for venture capitalism (a practice that has been termed “venture socialism.”)

On the Effective Use of Tax Dollars

I also said that it isn’t even the use of tax dollars that’s a problem. I support programs that encourage a transition away from oil and toward more sustainable forms of energy. There are many negatives associated with our consumption of fossil fuels, and our long history of dependence on them means they have a lot of built-in infrastructure advantages. We still import a lot of oil, but there are many compelling reasons to pursue locally produced energy. When there is a benefit to society, then I believe it is an acceptable use of tax dollars to pursue that benefit.

But in many cases, we have funded advanced biofuel projects that even the Department of Energy said had little chance of success. The problem is often superficial due diligence, combined with a wish-based energy policy that can come about when someone pushes their “hopes and dreams” as fuel in the tank with “no down side.” (For more details, see my article Government Mandated Spending: A Lesson in Wasted Tax Dollars).


At the end of my interview, I expressed my concern about editing to the producer, and whether the finished story would really convey my views on what is a complex topic. I was told that they felt like they could fairly represent my views, and that Lesley was very happy with how the interview turned out.

In the end, I know there is a lot of video competing for 15 minutes of air time, but I think 60 Minutes could have avoided most of the controversy arising after the story if they had focused more on the venture capital crash in cleantech, or on the failure of the advanced biofuel initiatives. I have seen many who have criticized the story, yet add a qualifier like “But the criticisms on advanced biofuels were correct.” The story would have also had a different feel if they had aired certain other exchanges in which we discussed the benefits of cleantech.

But the story ultimately got a lot of exposure and got a lot of people talking. I saw someone suggest that the controversy probably generated more viewers than the original story. So maybe 60 Minutes is happy with the controversy and are happy with the outcome. I could have made the story much less controversial, but then it would have had a lot fewer viewers. I guess the question is whether you want a report that can more easily withstand criticism, or one that generates controversy and thus ultimately drives more traffic? I strive for the former, while they delivered the latter.

Link to Original Article: 60 Minutes: The Rest of the Story

By Robert Rapier. You can find me on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

  1. By voetsak on January 8, 2014 at 8:58 pm

    Robert good stuff. Your knowledge of chemical engineering and thermodynamics is refreshing in a world where energy policy is directed by conductors of fantasy. Dr. Chu should be brought to congress to answer for his misdeeds as he certainly knew a lot about thermo and simply tried to please his boss at the expense of solid science. Khosla knows no thermo and is just another Obama dinner host like Doerr of Kleiner Perkins. I think CBS had a political motive here and wants Hillary Clinton rather than Joe Biden in 2016. They did not do the show without political motive. I am glad they did the show as the energy policy of this and all previous administrations is or has been a sick joke. The real buffoon in the piece is The Head Scientist from the DOE who was lackey of Dr. Chu. Leslie Stahl still has mighty high fences to mend for her February 2010 60 Minutes piece that launched Bloom Energy. That gangrene fake out makes Kior look Khosla knows thermo. The next 60 minutes piece must bring in the roles of Condi Rice (Kior) and Colin Powell (Bloom) in these green lies. The two of them can explain missing weapons of mass combustion. There also is an Alberta Canada connection and that Province has one Jagdeep Bachher who sits on the board of Bloom and once sat on the board of Kior. He is another thermodynamic work of art. The Bloom Greengate is a major story that will unfold. Kior will simply have to raise more money or die as they have a failed process. Bloom will eventually entangle several state governments, the federal government, the province of Alberta, and European institutions like EON and Credit Suisse. Leslie Stahl and her staff should be working on the Bloom Revisited piece for Sixty Minutes. Bloom stinks from head to toe and who knows if Joe Biden may even have had a role in bringing them to Delaware. The Bloom Boondoggle in Delaware won me and my newspaper (Tiburon Ark) first prize for a serious column from the National Newspapers Association. The Bloom Boondoggle in California is now over a quarter of a billion dollars. Lindsay Leveen The Green Machine

    • By TimC on January 10, 2014 at 12:16 pm

      Bloom is a good example of RR’s point about how cleantech companies take old technologies, spin them as something new, and fool gullible investors, public and private, out of millions of dollars. I worked with planar SOFCs years ago; they are interesting devices that have been around for a long time, but with many, many drawbacks that Bloom has done nothing to address. 60 minutes presented the Bloom Box as an amazing new breakthrough that will change the world. Millions of people were fooled. Gradually, the reality of Bloom’s marginal SOFC performance is becoming apparent, but once again the over-promising and under-delivering will tarnish the whole cleantech field.

      • By voetsak on January 10, 2014 at 4:18 pm

        TIM C Bloom had Doerr Gore and Powell. They got Gov Markell of Delaware (perhaps via Joe Biden and perhaps not) to give them a bunch of the money from the poor and middle class customers of Delmarva. Here in CA they got Jared Huffman who had AT&T contributing to his political campaigns to help them get over a quarter of billion dollars. Their amazing breakthrough was their political connection not their electrical connection. Gore, Doerr, Powell, Markell, and Huffman are the men in the smoke filled room. CBS needs to report on the waste of poor people’s money these gangrene green eels caused. The Vinod Cost Us piece on 60 Minutes is CBS’s way of distancing from Biden and promoting Hillary for 2016. Nobody told Robert that was the purpose of the piece. Both Khosla and Doerr have been dinner hosts to Obama. Biden is toast for 2016 and Christy has problems in Fort Lee. Bill and Hill are smiling

      • By B on January 25, 2014 at 1:16 pm

        So to clarify, SOFC = Solid Oxide Fuel Cell – this is a Medium to High Temperature Fuel Cell, which means it has high capital cost per kWe or even up to MWe scale. The Low Temperature Fuel Cells (think Nafion on small Welectric scale)- have relatively lower capital cost, but are very finicky at best with what you can run in them.

        Huge Note: The fuel cell is just a component in a fuel cell based system, which represents about 30% of the total system components… cost, etc.

  2. By takchess on January 8, 2014 at 9:29 pm

    Robert, Have people with strong energy backgrounds done well in Cleantech ?

    • By Robert Rapier on January 8, 2014 at 9:35 pm

      The largest renewable fuel plant in the world is run by a predominantly oil company.

      • By Tad on March 13, 2014 at 10:47 am

        What about POET?

        • By Robert Rapier on March 13, 2014 at 11:31 am

          POET is largest ethanol producer with all of their plants, but they don’t run the biggest plant.

  3. By Forrest and Jan Butterfield on January 9, 2014 at 8:11 am

    Controversy will drive up ratings, but hard on their credibility. Media has the story, just looking for credibility per expert interview. They pick the story that fit needs, bias, desire of the few in control. Much of it political as these elites are no different than other shakers and movers whom on the hunt for fame and fortune. If you want to be noticed and appreciated communication will often pivot upon populist sensibilities…the poor, the children, and victim hood. Media pay’s big money for talent that can jack up a story per this pursuit of leadership desires. Notice the celebrity status of news anchors. So, the story is filtered, edited, and monitored for control of information aka propaganda. What if 60 minutes changed format to debate from opposing viewpoints of experts. Throw in graphics, stats, history of problem. I would bet the show would be a hit, but alas the elites would lose control of message.
    I can only think of two reasons 60 minutes did this story. Dissuade popularity and chances for Biden and build up credibility of show since nothing to lose in this current time period. It may just be damage control as this group (media) has suffered credibility supporting politics as such a good time to pivot. See 60 minutes can be critical of current administration.

    • By Forrest and Jan Butterfield on January 9, 2014 at 9:02 am

      Probably a third reason…The news elitist look to crystal ball and easily see a very damaging story brewing. Citizens are growing wary of reckless deficit spending per leadership. Front and center the green energy sector not blossoming as envisioned. This was the centerpiece platform of needs to save the country. So, best way to deflect criticism is to get ahead of story and control the message. “Our virtuous public servants controlling the country per Washington fortunes were hoodwinked per private capitalist trying to extract public tax support for his selfish investment interests. While these public servants a tad naive, they had the best of intentions.” Darn no one accountable other than Vinod.

    • By Forrest and Jan Butterfield on January 9, 2014 at 9:02 am

      Probably a third reason…The news elitist look to crystal ball and easily see a very damaging story brewing. Citizens are growing wary of reckless deficit spending per leadership. Front and center the green energy sector not blossoming as envisioned. This was the centerpiece platform of needs to save the country. So, best way to deflect criticism is to get ahead of story and control the message. “Our virtuous public servants controlling the country per Washington fortunes were hoodwinked per private capitalist trying to extract public tax support for his selfish investment interests. While these public servants a tad naive, they had the best of intentions.” Darn no one accountable other than Vinod.

  4. By Eric on January 9, 2014 at 11:42 am

    Robert, don’t take anything personally with the outcome of the 60 Minutes piece. “Switch” spent 98 minutes reviewing “fossiltech,” cleantech and our energy future. As outstanding a film as it is, they were only able to talk about energy in the most superficial terms.

    Presenting a balanced piece on a technical topic in 15 minutes is not only nearly impossible, but it’s not the mission of 60 Minutes. They exist to tell stories – and to that end they do a good job of it. I haven’t seen the piece, but I’m sure that it’s an interesting story. Actually presenting a balanced path towards practical energy policy will take more of the outreach and long form journalism that you’ve already been practicing.

    • By Russ Finley on January 15, 2014 at 10:15 pm

      Well put …took the words right out of my mouth.

    • By Optimist on January 17, 2014 at 2:25 pm

      Ahem. I’d say part of the challenge (for everybody) is that bit is nearly impossible to have an adult conversation about energy in America: due to the machinations of a certain Mr. Rockefeller Americans tend to view Big Oil as nothing but a bunch of lying, cheating profiteers, involved in complex conspiracies to protect their business. When you look at it that way, you tend to think that the solution is for Uncle Sam to step in and “level the playing field.” Just upset the conspiracy and clean tech will blossom.

      The reality is that the oil business is about as competitive as any, with the added advantage that they don’t get bailouts when times are tough, unlike Uncle Sam’s favorite kids. To compete in this low margin-high volume business is extremely tough. Add to that the inconvenient truth that most liquid renewable fuel schemes are either utter stupidity (corn ethanol) or best done in the garage by the dedicated DIYer (biodiesel), and clean tech’s chances of blossoming anytime soon is significantly reduced…

  5. By billy on January 9, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    Robert, why don’t you attend the this January 10, 2014 in Tampa , Florida to see what the progressive thinking population are up to? Before you go be sure to read this website about the 3D periodic table that is replacing the old flat thinking model:

  6. By exdent11 on January 9, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    You gave them a bit of ammunition for their canon without knowing what they were going to aim it at ; in this case , it was to smear the whole cleantech industry.

  7. By daveswenson on January 9, 2014 at 8:30 pm

    I’m reminded of 60 Minutes’s rah rah for ethanol story sometime back in 2006 or 2007. Dan Rather stood in front of corn biorefinery near, I think, Steamboat Rock in Iowa lauding the brave new world in the offing. It was all clean, it was to be plentiful, and it was all straight from the mouths of corn-state politicians, the renewable fuels association, and the corn farmers.

    One of your commenters was right: 60 Minutes tells stories. And you were used, however correctly summarized, to make a point tangential to the thrust of your contributions.

    And so it goes

  8. By takchess on January 14, 2014 at 8:29 pm
  9. By Gerald on January 15, 2014 at 1:30 am

    Vinod Khosla writes a scathing response to 60 Minutes’ ‘Cleantech Crash’ report
    By Katie Fehrenbacher
    9 hours ago 1-14-14

    Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla has written a 2,000-word open letter to 60 Minutes and CBS in response to their recent “Cleantech Crash” report, which featured lengthy interviews with Khosla and a tour of one of Khosla’s portfolio companies. He asserts that there are numerous errors in the piece, that the journalists who made it were practicing “agenda-driven bastardization of news reporting,” and that the story “grossly misrepresented the state of the sustainable energy industry.”

    You can read the entire letter here. He also says in the letter that Khosla Venture’s “cleantech portfolio is profitable.”

    The billionaire who wants the waves for himself
    Tuesday, 14 January 2014 10:59

  10. By jane doe on January 16, 2014 at 11:36 pm

    The 60 minutes story was especially infuriating because it never mentioned all of the government subsidies given to oil, coal & gas companies over the years. Not to mentioned corn farmers for ethanol. Just made it seem that “clean energy” scoops up taxpayer money and sends it into a black hole. No mention of climate change, one of the very real and scary costs of fossil fuel.

    • By Optimist on January 17, 2014 at 2:13 pm

      Conveniently ignoring the difference between a tax break for a corporation that has many employees and pay taxes, and a direct payment to a pie-in-the-sky scheme that never had a snow ball’s chance of succeeding, yes, I guess one could make that accusation…

    • By Russ Finley on January 17, 2014 at 11:09 pm

      When you divide fossil fuel subsidies by units of energy produced you find that they are almost inconsequential. Certainly, they would still be the dominant energy source around the world with no subsidies. Most liquid biofuels are worse for the environment than their fossil fuel equivalent , IMHO. They can’t scale very far without doing great environmental harm via usurpation of land. There will be a market for them, but they can’t replace oil.

    • By Forrest and Jan Butterfield on January 18, 2014 at 9:53 am

      Clean tech appears to apply to what some call 2rd generation ethanol. Processes that were to convert cellulose and to be, currently, within production; past the pilot stage i.e. Coskata process of gasification/syngas feeding microbes. There is a lot of competing technologies within this group with diverse business models and diverse feed stocks. The low temperature processes utilizing microbes and or enzymes appear to be the most competitive. They have an advantage to pair up with corn ethanol. They share processing equipment and can utilize same supply chain. Government support for cellulosic ethanol is generous, but technology is still budding. Conversely, starch ethanol receives little government support other than RFS standard that requires gasoline supply chain to blend ethanol. This is required as ethanol has no established infrastructure. Veetc tax credit of past had protection from import ethanol (a tariff tax), 10 cent/gallon producer credit, and 54 cent/gallon ethanol blender credit. The blender credit was temporary to cover cost of hardware for blending ethanol into gas. Petrol has enjoyed tax credits as well even though a mature industry, the nature of this business is continual exploration and development. They are always within this risky and costly phase that increasingly becomes more challenging. So, it’s always within development phase that attract tax incentives. Conversely, corn ethanol utilizes the same processes and hardware long ago paid off. Currently, corn ethanol the lowest cost most competitive liquid fuel within marketplace. Also, recent comparisons put corn ethanol at a 30% environmental improvement as compared to gasoline. Ethanol on improving trend line, gasoline on a decreasing trend line. Also, engine technology just starting to exploit ethanol for efficiencies. Ford has a unique Ecco Boost engine within future truck line that has efficiency of diesel at fraction of cost and weight. The engine is bi-fuel, utilizing a small engine for mpg, but when needing the engine punches up torque per high boost and ethanol fuel.

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