From June 7 to 20, 2010, NewsTrust hosted an Energy News Hunt to find good (and bad) journalism about the future of energy -- with a focus on low carbon technologies and innovative solutions that can scale quickly to power the whole planet. (see earlier blog post)
Our partners for this News Hunt were The Long Now Foundation and its Long News initiative. Our hosts were Kirk Citron, Mike LaBonte, Jon Mitchell and Beth Wellington. Kaizar Campwala was managing editor and Fabrice Florin was executive editor.
Each day during this two-week News Hunt, we reviewed stories on a new energy source: solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal, biofuels and fusion. We also researched related topics, such as the BP oil spill and energy efficiency. Our findings for each of these topics are summarized below. During that period, we reviewed over 260 stories about the future of energy, 129 of which received a NewsTrust rating, with a total of 774 individual reviews during that period. Posted stories were published by over 120 separate news sources.
Together, these stories helped us better understand some of the many challenges and opportunities related to the future of energy. As scientists, businesses and governments around the world look for scalable alternatives to fossil fuels in the next few decades, it appears that many clean energy sources can play a role to offset peak oil -- and yet they all have their own limitations. Based on what we found as a community, the future of energy is likely to be made of a patchwork of many different technologies, as our society struggles to generate terrawatts (not just gigawatts) to power our global needs.
Throughout the News Hunt, we found some great journalism about energy, but were also struck by the scarcity of comprehensive, in-depth, well sourced and contextual news coverage of this topic. Many of the straight news reports we reviewed tended to be superficial and focused more on the "problem box" (e.g.: BP oil spill), rather than the "solution box" (e.g.: clean and scalable energy sources). Popular science publications usually provided better coverage of possible solutions than general news outlets, but often relied on a single source (e.g.: the scientists whose work was being featured in the story). We also found many opinions and advocacy pieces that were more thoroughly researched than news reports, but they typically favored their own viewpoints. Thanks to our focus on "long news", we were able to go back several years to find better information. This was the first News Hunt where we didn't restrict ourselves to recent news stories, and it was a liberating experience: though some of the stories we found were a bit dated, the overall quality of their coverage usually made up for this time lag.
Here's what Long News editor Kirk Citron thought about this Energy News Hunt:
"The Long News project looks for news stories that might matter in the long term; obviously, the search for energy will be one of the great challenges of this century. We wanted to run this News Hunt now in the hope that the current BP oil spill crisis might help prompt a broader conversation about possible alternative sources. There was good news on many fronts - we found a lot of high quality journalism; we had participation from a large number of NewsTrust and Long Now Foundation members, bringing in news sources from around the world; and finally, there was a surprising amount of good news in the news stories themselves, as you'll read below."
Here are some of our top rated stories for this News Hunt:
- European Dream of Desert Energy Takes Shape - Der Spiegel
- How Texas Lassoed the Wind - Scientific American
- Water Adds New Constraints to Power - New York Times
- This Machine Might* Save the World - Popular Science
- Nuclear Energy Guide - Council on Foreign Relations
- The rise of Big Solar: Growing pains - Economist
- Exxon $600 Million Algae Investment Makes Khosla See Pipe Dream - Bloomberg
- Geothermal Power - Wikipedia
- Big Oil can't get beyond petroleum - Washington Post
- The Case For and Against Nuclear Power - Wall Street Journal
- Climate Change Recalculated - The Long Now Foundation
- What happens when energy resources deplete? - The Oil Drum
- Goodbye, bullet trains and windmills - Salon
- A 2-Cent Solution to Help Fuel an Energy Quest - New York Times
- Bill Gates on nuclear energy: Innovating to zero - TED
- Obama signals need for new energy agenda - Grist
- An Energy-Independent Future - Daily Show
For a full listing of stories evaluated in this Energy News Hunt, check all stories we reviewed, as well as our least trusted stories -- these stories were all reviewed between June 7 and 20, 2010, regardless of their publication dates. More recent stories can be found on our Energy topic page.
As we found out in this News Hunt, solar radiation is by far the most abundant energy source on earth (The Oil Drum), exceeding global energy demand many times over. But at its current capacity, solar power generation can only produce a tiny fraction of the world's total electricity supply (Wikipedia). However, according to The MIT Technology Review, the market continues to grow rapidly, especially in the U.S., and the industry has begun to employ a range of technologies, from next-generation photovoltaic cells to solar thermal generation using heat, to capture and harness more solar power.
And yet these advances appear limited by their high costs and the large amount of physical space they require, making solar unlikely to become a leading source of new energy in the near future. As our partner and reviewer Alexander Rose points out: "This should be put in perspective. Solar currently represents less than 1% of the total energy mix."
- The rise of Big Solar: Growing pains - The Economist
- European Dream of Desert Energy Takes Shape - Der Spiegel
- How home solar arrays can help to stabilize the grid - Scientific American
As we learned from over forty articles we reviewed on this topic, wind power is less costly than solar, and doesn't require the large upfront investments needed for nuclear and geothermal. And scientists, governments, and private companies appear to be tackling many of the issues that previously stunted the growth of wind energy, as demonstrated in Texas, where "a unique state energy policy combined with federal subsidies have helped make this state an important test case for scalable wind power deployment," as noted by Fabrice Florin.
We also read about several schemes to store wind energy, including the use of compressed air, pumped hydro, and even a piece in the New York Times about battery storage (which co-host Mike LaBonte noticed contained "three viewpoints, but only from the subject company and one customer"). A number of sources also covered an ambitious offshore wind proposal spanning the eastern United States, that could harness stronger, more consistent winds, while "eliminating aesthetic and noise concerns that have delayed [past] projects." As with other alternative energy sources, government support has been critical to the growth of wind, but there's increased interest in wind from the private sector, boding well for the future of this technology.
- How Texas Lassoed the Wind - Scientific American
- Eritrea: Reaping the wind - IRIN
- Bottled Wind Could Be as Constant as Coal - Wired
We found much controversy in the stories we reviewed about nuclear power. Is nuclear energy the clean, safe alternative to fossil fuel's finite supplies and carbon emissions? Or is it unsafe and too expensive to build? Critics say the timeline for conversion to nuclear power is too long, that investments divert resources from other technologies that work. They point to dangers involved in uranium mining, plant operations, nuclear waste disposal and the possible use of nuclear material for weapons. Proponents say that nuclear power has become a viable alternative to fossil fuels. They tout its lower cost per kilowatt, its baseload, always-on character, as opposed to intermittent solar and wind -- and point to "fourth generation" reactors which use nuclear waste as fuel.
The Council of Foreign Relations lays out the arguments both pro and con in its "Nuclear Energy Guide", which Sirajul Islam calls "a good resource." A number of stories report on the benefits of a "nuclear renaissance," such as this article from MarketWatch -- while NASA climate scientist James Hansen supports the use of fourth generation reactors. Other stories point to some serious side-effects, such as "Nuclear power & public health" which Dwight Rousu calls "a thorough and informative article... from an expert not in the pay of the nuclear industry."
- The Future of Nuclear Energy - Scientific American
- The Case For and Against Nuclear Power - Wall Street Journal (Opinion)
- Some Nukes - The New Yorker
Geothermal energy is generated by converting heat from deep within the earth into electricity. We learned in this News Hunt that unlike wind power, geothermal power plants produce a consistent energy load all year round, and have a smaller footprint compared to solar. However, geothermal energy is highly location dependent. "The reason Iceland gets 26% of its power from geo," said Alexander Rose, "is that it is highly geothermally active."
Another hurdle for geothermal power is the significant capital needed to explore and then build geothermal plants. Accessing the heat source requires drilling deep in the ground, a process that "is very nearly as old as the discovery of oil as a fuel source, and is expensive, time-consuming, dangerous and environmentally hazardous." Scientific American's Christopher Mims explained that while geothermal may be cost effective in the long run, the high up-front investment mean "companies are more likely to spend money on things with lower front-end costs, like natural gas-powered plants." Drilling for geothermal power plants also increases the risk of earthquakes, according to Nature.
- Using Carbon Dioxide to Extract Geothermal Energy - MIT Technology Review
- Mining Magnate Ross Beaty is Turning to Geothermal - Forbes
- Joining the Energy Underground: Residential Geothermal Power Systems - Scientific American
As we found out in this News Hunt, not all biofuels are created equal. The Guardian points out that producing biofuels from corn and soybeans can drive up the price of food, and the Associated Press explored whether wood-base biofuels could harm woodlands.
On the horizon are "fourth generation fuels that use techniques like hydroprocessing, advanced biochemistry, and "solar-to-fuel" methods, which were reported on in Scientific American and GreenTech Media. Reviewer Mindy Phypher sounds a note of caution about these new technologies in her Scientific American review, explaining that she has "learned to take glowing reviews of potential breakthroughs with a grain of salt. So many, for one reason or another, never make it to the market or successfully solve the problem they were intended to solve."
- Exxon $600 Million Algae Investment Makes Khosla See Pipe Dream - Bloomberg
- Algae to solve the Pentagon's jet fuel problem - Guardian
- EU biofuels 'should be certified' - BBC News
Unlike nuclear fission, fusion power forces atoms to join and thus release some of their energy, using only water and other commonly available elements as fuel, as we found out in this News Hunt. A leader in this field is the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Labs. On June 16, 2010, The Long Now Foundation hosted a talk by NIF director Ed Moses, who described their groundbreaking work (this News Hunt was originally intended as a companion program to this talk). If Moses is right, fusion energy, likely to be driven by the NIF's laser array, could provide clean, abundant electricity to power the planet.
Some scientists and politicians have expressed skepticism about this technology (Scientific American), and question whether society can bear the cost of development (Bnet). But Long Now founder Stewart Brand points out that "fusion power, like nuclear fission power, would cost less per kilowatt hour than wind (and far less than solar), yet would be less capital intensive than fission. For the constant baseload power no carbon is involved, no waste stream, no possibility of meltdown or weaponization, and there is no such thing as peak hydrogen."
- Laser fusion test results raise energy hopes - BBC News
- This Machine Might Save the World - Popular Science
- Clean Fusion Power This Decade - The Long Now Foundation/NIF (Opinion)
Energy-efficient buildings, industrial processes and transportation could reduce the world's projected energy needs in 2050 by one third, according to the International Energy Agency. In the U.S., while the size of the economy tripled between 1970 and 2010, 75% of the energy which fueled that expansion came from efficiency advances, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. The real challenge seems to be a lack of political will to change energy policy in the United States, as suggested in opinions such as "The Psychology of Climate Change.
In "Europe Energized", Steven Hill looks at how government policy can encourage the adoption of energy alternatives -- and reviewer Chris Finnie found "this piece was not only informative, but inspiring." Shari Shapiro comments on the proposed Kerry-Lieberman bill in the Green Building Blog, noting that it "took the best, easiest and cheapest means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions - through energy efficiency - and gave them the very short end of the stick." Perhaps the most informative opinion on this topic was by Grist's David Roberts, who covered Robert Lugar's less ambitious bill in "A bipartisan path forward on energy and climate."
- Europe Energized - New York Times (Opinion)
- A bipartisan path forward on energy and climate - Grist (Opinion)
- As Congress Dithers, Military Provides Leadership On Green Energy - Forbes (Opinion)
Gulf Oil Spill
Our News Hunt coincided with the BP oil spill, which dominated the news and raised urgent questions about this environmental disaster. Coverage of this event ranged from the immediate threats to Gulf Coast residents to the consequences for BP and its shareholders to "longer news" stories about the spill's ecological impact (which reviewer Dale Penn calls "excellent journalism") and the dim future of fossil fuels as an energy source from The Oil Drum (reviewer Patricia L'Herrou calls it "a fascinating description.")
For this News Hunt, we looked at dozens of stories related to the BP oil spill, hoping to find good information about alternative energy sources that might wean us from fossil fuels. We were often disappointed by the lack of substantive coverage about viable solutions to the upcoming energy crisis.
- In gulf oil spill's long reach, ecological damage could last decades - The Washington Post
- Lasting Menace - Scientific American (Opinion)
- Energy Transitions Past and Future - The Oil Drum (Opinion)
Bad Journalism on Energy
As always, we try to highlight examples of bad journalism here at NewsTrust, and we found plenty of them in this News Hunt. The usual suspects did not disappoint, with Glenn Beck's associates Pat & Stu offering a review of President Obama's June 15th primetime address, leading reviewer Richard Williams to write: "If we look at this as an opinion piece delivered by comics, it wasn't half bad. If we look at it as 'journalism,' we're barking up the wrong tree."). We were also concerned by Keith Olbermann's interview with Mother Jones reporter Kate Sheppard at MSNBC.
This Energy News Hunt also uncovered a particular kind of bad journalism, in which lazy writing allows the wow-factor of a new technological development to overwhelm critical reporting and thorough investigation, as noted above.
Least Trusted Stories
- Using oil to focus energy - Hardball / MSNBC (Opinion)
- Obama unleashes big government - The Glenn Beck Program (Opinion)
- US lab debuts super laser - AFP
Thanks to our partners
We'd like to thank our partners at The Long Now Foundation and its Long News initiative, for participating in this News Hunt. In particular, we're very grateful to these individuals for their special contributions to this project: Stewart Brand, Kirk Citron, Danielle Engelman, Kevin Kelly and Alexander Rose.
You can read Kirk's own News Hunt report on the Long News blog. And as Long Now's executive director, Alexander shared these observations about our partnership:
"Looking back over what came out of the Energy News Hunt I found that I learned not only more about energy, but a lot more about the way it is covered by the press. I am reminded how rare it is to see a story that contextualizes new energy technology in the overall picture. Crowd-sourcing is a tricky and nuanced business, NewsTrust did a great job framing and directing the efforts of its contributors to yield high quality stories."
This project was made possible in part by a generous grant from Omidyar Network, which is funding a six-month investigation of new ways to help people separate fact from fiction online. We're very grateful for their support, as well as to our other backers at the MacArthur Foundation, Ashoka and the Ayrshire Foundation.
Thanks to our reviewers
Our deepest appreciation goes to our great hosts Kirk Citron, Mike LaBonte, Jon Mitchell and Beth Wellington, for their thoughtful posts and reviews about the future of energy. We also greatly appreciate their findings in this blog post: Jon wrote about Solar, Fusion, the Gulf Oil Spill and Bad Journalism. Beth wrote about Nuclear, Biofuels and Energy Efficiency. Kaizar wrote about Wind and Geothermal -- and also wrote and edited this blog post, along with Fabrice. Thank you all for your good contributions!
Lastly, we're grateful to all our NewsTrust reviewers for participating in this Energy News Hunt. And a big welcome to over a hundred new members who signed up for this project. We're delighted that you could join us for this fascinating investigation.
This News Hunt and partnership with The Long Now Foundation was a great opportunity to test our evolving "trust network" platform, which enables citizens and journalists to collaboratively filter the news. This demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach, as we all worked closely with each other and used all of our tools to learn more about our energy options -- and became more informed and engaged citizens in the process. We look forward to expanding this platform in coming months, and working with you all again very soon!
What do you think?
We would love to hear your thoughts about this News Hunt -- and/or NewsTrust in general. To share your feedback, please leave a comment below, or email us.
-- by Kaizar Campwala and Fabrice Florin, with Jon Mitchell and Beth Wellington