When a Fact Check Goes Wrong and Misses the (Clean Energy) Point

Jan 16, 2012 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »

The rise of dedicated public fact checking services like PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and the Washington Post Fact Checker has been a generally good thing. However, these services can go astray when they decide that a statement which would be improved with clarification is “false” – a practice that weakens the “false” label when it is applied to an outright falsehood.

This unfortunate phenomena was on display when the Rhode Island edition of PolitiFact critiqued a comment by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse about the interplay between the deployment of renewable energy resources like solar panels and ending U.S. dependence on imported fossil fuels, like the oil that is refined into gasoline.

In their critique, the Providence Journal staff writing and editing the item examine comments that Senator Whitehouse made in support of federal tax incentives for renewable energy:

“Let me just bring it home,” Whitehouse said, as he referred to his notes. “In Rhode Island, this [grant program] has facilitated solar panel installations on three new bank branches. The TD Bank has opened up in Barrington, in East Providence and in Johnston, Rhode Island. Those projects created jobs, they put people to work, they lowered the cost for these banks of their electrical energy, and they get us off foreign oil and away, step by step, from these foreign entanglements that we have to get into to defend our oil supply.”

The Politi-Fact RI folks decide to look narrowly at the question of whether electricity production from solar panels always and consistently directly reduces use of oil.  This is definitely part of the story and, as I emphasized when I spoke to their reporter when he was working on the “piece, it is a direct relationship that used to be more present back in the days (not too many years ago) when more of our electricity came from oil. But is still a real relationship, especially during the days in the summer when air conditioning drives up electric demand to its highest levels of the year.  As ISO New England (the operator of the regional electric grid) told Politi-Fact RI “oil is used more on days when demand for power is high” although the reporters dismiss this reality (despite the fact that these peak hours are when air pollution is at its worst and the fact that the entire system is designed to meet that moment of peak demand) as “isolated.”

Senator Whitehouse was making three points, only one of which is addressed by the simple “displacement” analysis of what generation is pushed out by deployment of new renewable sources:

  • Moving to cleaner electricity generation from renewable sources like wind and solar is an essential piece in an overall conversion of our economy and energy system (including energy used to move the wheels on our cars, trucks and buses round and round) away from dirty and imported fossil fuels. In places like East Providence RI where TD Bank (as highlighted by Senator Whitehouse) is installing solar panels on the roof of their branches in close proximity to a Chevrolet dealer selling the Chevy Volt you can seeing that future taking shape.
  • Senator Whitehouse’s larger point about ending “foreign entanglements” is of particular significance, moving beyond the question of oil, to people in and around Rhode Island because the largest power plant in what is known in the wholesale electricity world as “Greater Rhode Island” (a geographical label of particular pride and amusement to native Rhode Islanders) is the Brayton Point Power Plant. That facility, just over the border in Somerset Massachusetts, has burnt coal imported from Indonesia and Colombia in recent years.
  • And the direct displacement issue is real: while there is less oil used to generate electricity these days it is worth pondering the overlap between peak solar energy generation (do we really need a link to show that it makes more electricity when it is sunny?) and those peak hours of electricity demand during the summer when it is hottest and air conditioners across the region are roaring away.

All of this suggests that the specific comment by Senator Whitehouse that Politi-Fact Rhode Island evaluated are solidly grounded in facts and accurate observations.