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When “fast facts” aren’t truthful, aren’t factual …

February 12th, 2018 · No Comments

Axios is a Washington creation in the media culture. Well-funded and (extremely) well-promoted, it seems targeted at influencing influencers. Core to the overall approach seems to be a ‘#bothsiderism” approach, to present both sides of a political issue typically without stating how “one side” is simply outside the realm of truthfulness and that the “political” both sides doesn’t exist in a real-world analysis. Axios’ sound-byte level approach (where an 800-word post is long) contributes to this as complexity is harder to deal with in tweet-like pieces. Obviously, the clearest case comes with trying to ‘bridge the divide’ on climate change, presenting Donald Trump and Republican alternative facts (un)reality as ‘one side’ and presenting those confronting reality as the other.

The 31 January launch of the “Fossil Free Fast” movement has caught the attention of Axios’ Amy Harder as seen in several recent pieces focused on ‘climate change’ which each take a “both sides” balancing of this activist movement against others — whether against Republican science denialists or centrist (somewhat “All of the Above”) Democratic politicians resisting incorporating a true understanding of climate risks and climate mitigation possibilities into policy concepts and approaches.

The second is today’s edition.

America’s Democratic Party, environmental groups and clean-energy leaders pushing action on climate change are at odds over how best to address it.

Harder’s the left’s civil war over climate change focuses on “how large a role renewable energy should play in America’s future energy mix,”. This 873 word piece has many troubling aspects. The following highlights just a few.

Harder sets the stage with “Fast Facts” that have elements that are ‘factual’ but, well, not truthful in the context of the discussion.

  • Natural gas and coal power almost two-thirds of U.S. electricity.

Okay, fact … Yet, this totally obscures rapidly changing electricity generation world.

  • Coal was over 50 percent of US electricity less than a decade ago and is rapid (and continuing) decline. Coal’s share of total electricity is down roughly 10 percent over the past decade.
  • Coal has been displaced primarily by natural gas but, as well, by the exponential growth in wind and solar electricity capacity and generation.
    • And, well, enabled by efficiency/relatively flat electricity demand which means new clean electrons can drive out dirty electrons from the grid.

The Changing Electricity World: The 2010s: Rapid growth in natural gas and solar/wind, rapid decline in coal generation

  • Nuclear power provides 60% of carbon-free electricity in the U.S.

Yes, fact again … yet, again a misleading representation.  That “60%” represents a rapidly falling figure with well-over 70% being reality about a decade ago.  Now, the falling is two-fold: due to the rapid growth in wind and solar driving up the total clean electrons in the grid and increasing retirements of nuclear power plants due to, in many cases, negative economic conditions for nuclear power.  While not embracing shutting nuclear power plants for those economic conditions (with a reasonable carbon price, this issue would essentially disappear from the market), this “fast fact” again obscures an important dynamic element of the US energy/electricity situation.

This isn’t solely about facts obscuring but about getting “facts” wrong along with obscuring. The bullet following the coal/natural gas bullet is:

  • Nearly 15% is from renewables: half each from hydropower and wind, less than 1% from solar.

Yes, fact that “nearly 15%” but that obscures that that share is up roughly 50 percent in the past decade and with that share of total electricity accelerating. (Of that 15%, roughly half is hydropower which has paths to (significant) expansion but has been roughly flat along with other slower growing low-carbon electricity (like geothermal) that also have potential for growth but are not rapidly changing. The other half is the rapidly growing wind and solar, which account for essentially all of renewable energy’s growth in share of total US electrons.)

  • … less than 1% from solar.

As to not getting something right, “less than 1% from solar” is not right even if it was true not that long ago.

For those who don’t follow these things closely, there was long a problem with how EIA accumulated data.  While people have small fossil fuel generators (diesel, natural gas, propane), these are relatively small in the electricity market and typically don’t interact directly with the grid. (This is more ‘backup generator’ rather than steady producer.)  Tracking all of these small to very small systems was, well, nigh impossible (within any reasonable concept of data gathering) and viewed as not that important for understanding US energy demand and usage.  For solar, however, the small matters far more — and that ‘small’ (e.g., rooftop and other small installations) typically does (via net metering) interacts directly with and continuously (365 days/year) with the larger electricity grid.  When finally analyzing this, EIA determine that roughly 1/3rd of US solar was such small systems and by starting to count it back in 2016, US solar production jump 50% in a heart-beat and leaped past 1 percent of total generation.

Overall for 2016, wind supplied 5.6 percent of generation, utility-scale solar contributed 0.9 percent, and small-scale solar about 0.5 percent, for a cumulative total of 7 percent.

The exponential growth of wind and solar electricity generation

In any event, the “<1%” framing certainly implies ‘this really doesn’t matter because it is so small” and falls into the canard of ‘it is only X percent’.

Framing a discussion with “Fast Facts” that aren’t truthful to the issue and aren’t necessarily even factual for readers who simply don’t have the time or inclination to look past them inherently fosters a distorted perspective on presentation of “both sides”.

Note/Update: A twitter quick look:

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Tags: electricity · energy information administration · solar

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