04/13/2015 11:21 am ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

Should Editors Bother With Fact Checking? Or, Newsweek Publishes Hatchet-Job Attack on #Wind Power.

There is an old adage: "Lies, damned lies, and statistics."  With an advocacy piece with heavy overtones of analysis and citations with reams of numbers, it is hard to work through a series of statistics to understand whether the basic material is truthful or contrived and manipulated to support a preconceived notion.  This poses a real challenge to an editorial staff: How do they judge thought pieces in terms of fact checking?  Is it enough that the reference says what is said, or do the editors owe the readers more?  Should basic asserted facts be accepted without examination, or do the editors owe the readers more?  And if basic facts are wrong, should the overall article be published, or do the editors owe the readers more?

Simply put, I am far from the only one who believes that editors owe the readers more. Recently, the New Yorker's editors failed their readers by publishing Jonathan Franzen's birds-and-climate-change piece apparently without giving a serious look at assertions and basic failures.  Newsweek's editors have done a similar -- if not more serious -- disservice to their readers with the publication of Randy Simmons' broadside attack on wind power. Simmons argues, in short, that government subsidy of wind power (such as the production tax credit, or PTC) is counterproductive and too costly.

As with Franzen's piece, books could be dedicated to dissecting this one article and providing more accurate analyses to support public debate and discussion. This article gets things wrong on so many levels, from misstatements of basic facts to misrepresentations to playing with statistics to not addressing fundamental issues. Following are three examples (see here for even more):

Getting Basic Facts Wrong: An Example

Wind power is approaching 5 percent of total U.S. electricity generation and is -- along with solar power -- continuing to grow at double-digit rates year to year.

What does Simmons write and Newsweek publish?

"[W]ind energy -- which supplies just 2 percent of U.S. electricity...."

Um, no.

According to the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration (EIA), wind produced 4.4 percent of U.S. electricity in 2014. And due to capacity growth, that will be higher in 2015.

I have to say that this one basic factual error should have been a clarion call for Newsweek's editors to send this piece back to the drawing board.

Key Elements of Financial Equation Missing

Let's be honest: The economics of energy are quite complex. Even without accounting for "externalities" (see below), there are many elements of the cost equation that are not simply the "cost per megawatt-hour." When it comes to wind and solar power, for example, there is a very interesting market dynamic that even most (strong) advocates of renewable energy seem to miss.

As an example of Simmons' gap as to financial implications, the article also does not examine the very real impact that wind (and solar) have on reducing costs to consumers by cutting peak pricing.

Jerome Guillet writes at OliNo:

[In Germany] renewable energy (mostly wind, plus some solar) injections into the German electricity system caused, on average over the year, prices to be reduced by about 8 euros/MWh -- about 15%. That translated into savings of 5 billion euros over the year for electricity buyers (utilities and other wholesale consumers)....

And Tom Konrad writes at Forbes:

A 2010 Study by Charles River Associates [pdf] found that Cape Wind would lower prices on the New England wholesale market by 0.122 cents on average. Since Cape Wind itself would be producing about 1% of all power on the New England market, the extra 14 cents per kWh on that power would be offset by a savings of .122 cents per kWh on all other power. By my calculations, the combination of price suppression and the increased direct price of power from Cape Wind, the net effect on the average price of power in New England of Cape Wind would be an increase of only $0.0002 (0.02 cents) per kWh, assuming the Charles River Associates study is accurate. Put another way, even if customers pay a 12.2 cent per kWh premium for power from Cape Wind, the net effect on utility bills would be zero because of price suppression.

Middelgrunden_wind_farm_2009-07-01_edit_filteredNow, this doesn't enter into the subsidy-per-megawatt-hour discussion (PTC) but certainly is a significant portion of the financial equation meriting discussion in an article purporting to provide a serious look at "the full cost of generating energy from wind power."

Stovepiping the Discussion to Avoid True Cost-Benefit Analysis

Simmons clearly recognizes that there is a thing called pollution. He attacks wind power for supposed inefficiency in reducing carbon emissions because of stand-by power requirements, which suggests that he understands carbon as pollution.  Yet the very real costs associated with not just carbon but all pollution are not part of what he discusses, even though he writes that this should be about "full cost" -- that is, not just the electricity bill but also the costs of "subsidies and grants."

What are "subsidies"? They aren't just measurable in direct dollars on the utility bill. We -- as a society and as individuals -- massively subsidize the burning of coal with our and our children's lungs, mercury risks to brain development, climate risks, etc. Those very real costs are "externalities" not considered in the financial equation. If externalities were considered on the bill, the "real" cost of coal might be well above 17 cents per kilowatt-hour. The "externalities" subsidy for burning coal is potentially over 10 cents per kilowatt-hour.

And the list could go on.

A serious editorial -- including basic fact checking -- would have found fundamental issues in this polemic posturing as analysis. It's sad that Newsweek's editors evidently did not feel that they had an obligation to their readership to do that serious look.

Note 1

The biography left out something that readers might have found illuminating. It reads:

Randy Simmons is professor of political economy at Utah State University. ... Full disclosure: Randy Simmons receives funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (grant has been completed and there is no current funding) and Strata, a 501 (c)3 non-profit organization.

A simple question: Did Newsweek's editors make a conscious choice not to inform their readers, or did they fail to do a simple check on who the author was? Either way, the editors failed their readers.

Similarly, the cited sources of material are also marginally identified. Here are two examples where more robust identification might have informed readers

  • The citation of a study from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University fails to mention that, according to SourceWatch, the center "was founded and is funded by the Koch Family Foundations. According to financial records, the Koch family has contributed more than thirty million dollars to George Mason, much of which has gone to the Mercatus Center."
  • Hmm....

    Note 2

    Simmons' work generates fact checking that consistently shows errors and misleading material if not simply purposeful distortions and falsehoods -- for example, here and here, and this very cogent and direct dissection of a Simmons' op-ed, "Wind power blows past distortions of fossil-fueled opponents." And the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) put out a piece directly taking on the Newsweek piece: "Koch professor strikes out on wind." There is a lot of substantive material there showing how Simmons' work is based -- being charitable -- on dated material and how wind financials are far better when one uses actual up-to-date financial information.