Media Note: Did WCAX Spike a Climate Change Interview for Lack of "Opposing Views?"

Posted by Paul Heintz on Wed, Apr 30, 2014 at 5:04 PM

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Two weeks ago, WCAX-TV producer Alexei Rubenstein invited Vermont climatologist Alan Betts to appear on the station's daily interview program, "The :30." In an email, Rubenstein asked the National Science Foundation-funded researcher "to talk about [his] climate change work and Vermont and New England implications."

Betts agreed.

But on Wednesday, just hours before Betts was slated to appear, Rubenstein canceled. In an email, the producer explained that station "higher ups" had spiked the interview due to a lack of "opposing views." In a separate phone call, Betts says, Rubenstein "said it's because management is afraid of the hostile reactions they get."

Here's Rubenstein's email:

Alan,
We have to cancel today. I’ve been informed by higher ups that we need to have “opposing views” as part of the segment. I do not agree with this, but that’s the way it is. I apologize for all the trouble. If you are interested in appearing in the future with someone who has an “alternative viewpoint” maybe that would work. Please call me if you have any questions.
Alexei

Betts was shocked. For 30 years, the Pittsford scientist has studied climate trends in Vermont and throughout the world. He's delivered more than 100 talks around the state and penned commentaries for the Rutland Herald, Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Vermont Public Radio.

Never once, he says, has a news outlet demanded an "alternative viewpoint" to a phenomenon almost universally agreed upon by mainstream scientists.

"The impression I get is that WCAX is afraid of [criticism] and, therefore, it's impacting the freedom of the press," Betts says. "And it's impacting the public's ability to understand and deal with the problem. If we can't discuss on the media what's happening in Vermont, that's a large segment of the public that isn't going to be informed."

WCAX news director Anson Tebbetts sees it differently. He says the station simply found itself understaffed and unprepared to deliver a broader presentation on the subject of climate change.

"We were overwhelmed with material yesterday and wanted to do something more thoughtful and have a bigger discussion with those involved," he says. "I guess [Betts] may have interpreted that we don't want to have him on — and that's not the case. We'd love to have him on if he'd still like to come on."

Tebbetts says the station wasn't necessarily looking to match Betts with a climate change denier. Rather, he'd like his audience to hear from representatives of the sugar and ski industries, and others affected by climate change.

"Part of our job is to educate," he says. "It's to be fair. And it's to have as many viewpoints as we possibly can. Whether it's always clean-cut, 50-50, this person gets two minutes, that person gets two minutes — that's just not possible. We can't do that."

So WCAX wasn't simply trying to squelch a discussion about climate change?

"Not at all," Tebbetts says. "The idea that we somehow want to squelch any of this is not accurate at all. We want to have more discussions on the topic. In the end, it came down to: We overextended what we thought we could do on that particular day. That's what happened. And we probably could have done a better job communicating with Mr. Betts."

Disclosure: WCAX and Seven Days are media partners. Paul Heintz and other Seven Days reporters regularly appear on "The :30." And Heintz is an occasional, paid political analyst for WCAX.

Comments (13)

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Why all the theory and generalization, Mr Science? Where are the data showing that 8% less fossil fuel is being burned in the Midwest because of wind?

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Posted by Deric on 05/05/2014 at 9:52 PM

Deric’s latest critique gets us right back to square one. Like Annette Smith, Deric doesn’t understand how scientific reasoning works.

“Komanoff extrapolates from a few selectively interpreted theoretical statements. He does not use data of actual fossil fuel use.” First, he actually DOES use data from the mid-Atlantic grid operator. Second, he creates a general model to EXPLAIN in some detail HOW and WHY the backup power necessitated by intermittency consumes FAR less fuel than actually producing power from fossil sources. That’s exactly what a scientific model SHOULD do.

Without the generalization, each instance stands or falls on its own. Newton’s contribution to physics was not noticing that things fall when dropped: people had observed that for millennia. It was putting the phenomenon in the context of a rigorous model which allowed a critical set of generalizations, which could then be used to produce new hypotheses, and new knowledge. Komanoff’s model allows us to estimate how much fossil fuel is displaced by ANY wind installation on the grid, which is a powerful generalization.

Deric still prefers to simply ignore all the other data sources I cited (not to mention the dozens I did NOT bother citing), and he still hasn’t presented a scintilla of evidence to support his arguments.

As to Deric’s parting shot, it’s as baseless as everything else he writes: “it doesn't take much to weigh against wind's negligible – even in theory – benefit.” Wind’s benefit is directly proportional to the amount of wind turbines installed and their relative contribution to the demand for electricity. In New England where wind supplies around 1% of the electricity consumed, wind’s benefit is, following the Komanoff equations, about .88-.96%. In other words, since wind produces a negligible proportion of New England energy (so far), its contribution is similarly negligible.

In the Midwest, where it supplies over 10% and growing, the benefit is also over 8% and growing. In other words, the benefit is directly proportional to the amount of fossil fuels displaced and that, in turn, depends on the number and size of the projects built. How totally unsurprising.

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Posted by JohnGreenberg on 05/05/2014 at 7:16 PM

@JohnGreenberg: Komanoff extrapolates from a few selectively interpreted theoretical statements. He does not use data of actual fossil fuel use.

As to wind's carbon emissions, they also continue, with maintenance, oil and coolant changes, parts replacement, groundskeeping, etc. No, it's nowhere near as bad as nuclear, but it doesn't take much to weigh against wind's negligible – even in theory – benefit.

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Posted by Deric on 05/05/2014 at 1:38 PM

In Vermont no less - whoa!

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Posted by Roger Hill on 05/05/2014 at 1:11 PM

Deric is now grasping at straws.

1) “None of the reports cited by JohnGreenberg actually look at fossil fuel use. They look only at electricity generated by fossil fuels or, at best, fossil fuel use only while generating electricity. They completely avoid the question of fossil fuel burned in plants while they're not generating electricity.”

First, the issue we’ve been discussing here is whether wind turbines displace fossil fuels on the grid and thus contribute to addressing climate change. Clearly, wind turbines do NOT displace fossil fuels used, e.g. for transportation, heating, or other needs. They also don’t address cow farts, cement production, or many of the OTHER contributors to climate change. No one is suggesting otherwise.

Ms. Smith and Deric HAVE alleged that wind turbines do NOT displace fossil fuels when used to generate power, because they require fossil fuel backup, so THAT is the issue addressed and for which the the articles I cited provide documentation.

Specifically, the Komanoff article DIRECTLY addresses “the question of fossil fuel burned in plants while they're not generating electricity.” Indeed, that’s the WHOLE POINT of the article and why I gave it top priority. I already quoted Komanoff’s conclusion; I’ll add here that the point of the article is to SHOW how he got to that conclusion by looking at the specific backup needs of grid operators. In addition to the Komanoff article, however, most of the other articles speak to the same point: namely, the need for backup power (and the possibility that involves fossil fuels) due to wind’s intermittency, and whether that need actually displaces wind’s contribution to addressing climate change. They all reach the same conclusion: it doesn’t. Wind turbines DO address climate change.

2) Deric now writes: “Of course nuclear power involves carbon emissions.” His previous comment, to which I responded, stated: “nuclear (which does not emit carbon) is always on” Why it is “silly” to point out what Deric first failed to acknowledge, but now appears to consider obvious, I’ll leave to him to explain.

Wind does NOT involve carbon emissions in anything like the same sense as nuclear power, since it does not require FUEL. Uranium enrichment, in particular, is a HIGHLY energy-intensive process. I pointed out that previously that wind turbines and hydro plants DO entail SOME embedded carbon in construction and transportation. But given the difference in how these different sources actual create energy, there’s little question that nuclear requires the creation of far MORE greenhouse gases.

3) I have no idea why Deric considers it pertinent to this discussion to note that “water can go through a dam without being used to generate electricity.”

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Posted by JohnGreenberg on 05/05/2014 at 12:46 PM

None of the reports cited by JohnGreenberg actually look at fossil fuel use. They look only at electricity generated by fossil fuels or, at best, fossil fuel use only while generating electricity. They completely avoid the question of fossil fuel burned in plants while they're not generating electricity.

The rest of the reply is just silly. Of course nuclear power involves carbon emissions. So does wind. And of course, hydro is most likely to be displaced by wind only where there is hydro. The rest of the comments about hydro seem not to consider the fact that water can go through a dam without being used to generate electricity.

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Posted by Deric on 05/05/2014 at 12:06 PM

1) “Deric” makes a series of arguments with no documentation offered for any of them. So let me begin by offering links to the studies to which I referred previously.

The shortest, most comprehensible source I’ve seen is Charles Komanoff’s “Wind Power’s Displacement of Fossil Fuels.” In 11 pages, Komanoff uses the experience of the mid-Atlantic grid operator to show that “Each megawatt-hour of wind generation directly displaces (on average) 10,000,000 Btu of fossil fuel use while requiring a range of 436,000 to 1,160,000 Btu of fossil fuels to be expended for provision of supplemental reserve.” (p. 8) In percentage terms: “Equivalently,
88%-96% of the “theoretical” fossil fuel savings for wind power — the savings that would be calculated from equating each kilowatt-hour of wind generated with a kilowatt-hour of fossil fuels avoided — remain after allowing for reserve requirements.” (p. 9) http://www.komanoff.net/wind_power/Wind_Po…

Another study looks in detail at the many problems of integration here: http://www.ijrer.org/index.php/ijrer/artic…

But there are MANY other sources which have looked into this. Domestically, NREL (a branch of DOE) maintains a website for research, etc. here: http://www.nrel.gov/electricity/transmissi… DOE itself did a specific study for Indiana here: http://apps2.eere.energy.gov/wind/windexch… It shows that building 1,000 MW of new wind capacity would displace 3.1 million tons of CO2 and save 1,684 million gallons of water as well.

Texas, home to the greatest amount of wind generation in the US has a pamphlet here: http://texaswindenergy.tcaptx.com/

And the National Conference of State Legislatures has also looked at the issue here: http://www.ncsl.org/documents/energy/Windi…

There are also international studies, including this one from OECD: http://www.oecd.org/environment/cc/3487874…

2) Deric is simply wrong when he suggests that nuclear power “does not emit carbon.” Nuclear power plants need to be built in the first place, which is a highly carbon-intensive activity involving massive quantities of concrete and steel, two of the largest consumers of greenhouse gases, and then, at the end of their useful lives, dismantled, again requiring vast inputs of greenhouse gases. In the meantime, uranium needs to be mined (carbon), milled (carbon), enriched (massive carbon), fabricated (carbon), and transported (carbon). There are studies attempting to estimate the carbon contribution of the nuclear fuel cycle, but they all depend on MANY debatable assumptions (e.g. how much uranium will be contained in a particular mine; how many years will a nuke operate; at what lifetime capacity factor; how nuclear waste will be ultimately disposed of, etc.) Suffice it to conclude that nuclear probably is a relatively low-carbon power source, but it’s clear that the nuclear cycle DOES emit greenhouse gases.

3) Deric argues that hydro power is the “most likely source to be ramped in response to wind.” That’s possible only in some instances. But when hydro IS used as the backup power source, then wind becomes essentially a carbon-free source (except for the carbon which is embedded in the wind turbine and hydro components).

When hydro is available, the reason it CAN be ramped as backup power is that reservoirs are allowed to fill while the wind is blowing, and released when it isn’t. If the dams were operating all of the time (as presumably they would be without the wind turbines), SOMETHING else would have to be supplying whatever amount of power into the grid that the wind turbines are supplying, and unless that something else is a non-carbon generating source, carbon WILL be generated. In other words, hydro can be a backup source or a primary power source, but the SAME power cannot be used for both simultaneously.

4) Finally, Deric writes: “The simple fact is that actual data do not show meaningfully less fossil fuel being burned per unit of electricity on the system because of wind.” This statement is specifically and directly refuted by Komanoff and the DOE IN study cited above.

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Posted by JohnGreenberg on 05/04/2014 at 7:56 PM

As JohnGreenberg notes, a relatively small amount of wind on the grid enjoys the backup that's already built in to the system. That's the main reason wind has so little, if any effect, on carbon emissions. In every place where wind represents a more significant percentage of generation, large interconnectors to other grids are required to essentially bring that percentage down again. The comment seems further confused: nuclear (which does not emit carbon) is always on, and natural gas plants emit more carbon when forced to frequently ramp in response to wind's variable production. And hydro, the most likely source to be ramped in response to wind, is already carbon free. The simple fact is that actual data do not show meaningfully less fossil fuel being burned per unit of electricity on the system because of wind. That makes industrial-scale wind hard to justify anywhere, and most certainly on ecologically sensitive and spiritually valued ridgelines.

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Posted by Deric on 05/04/2014 at 12:13 PM

Responding to Bob the Green Guy's post that I am a mouthpiece for the fossil fuel industry, I went to his Facebook page and posted my history of fighting natural gas expansion in Vermont. Bob Farnham replied:

"Your condescending attitude is ironic. I'll tolerate your comments to a point. Just to remind you, and others, that this is my Facebook page. I control the content. I have the final word. If you have a story you want to tell, by all means, feel free to share that on your own wall."

Someone I do not know responded:

"hey Bob, do you not see the irony in saying that a one sided debate is not a debate at all, and then threatening to ban anyone who dares debate you? Also, you mischaracterized Annette Smith as representing the oil and fracking industry, and falsely claimed that she doesn't oppose the fracking pipeline. how was clearing up those direct misrepresentations and attacks on her character condescending? when you resort to disinformation and deliberate attacks, you tread the line between free speech and libel. finally, since the same corporation, Gaz Metro, is putting in both fracking gas pipelines and wind turbines through its subsidiaries, it is more true that windustrialists are promoting fraking industry talking points. wind and fracking go together like t boone pickens and profit."

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Posted by VermontCE on 05/04/2014 at 10:54 AM

Deric writes that Annette Smith "is also aware of their sorely lacking effect on climate change." There is no factual basis for this.

When electricity from wind turbines is fed into the grid, it supplies demand that would otherwise be met from other sources. In New England, specifically, that means primarily natural gas or nuclear. (For precisely this reason, Entergy and other major nuclear utilities are doing their best to keep renewable power OFF the grid). Studies show that wind's intermittency increases the need for backup power only VERY marginally, mainly because backup power is required ANYWAY lest grids become inoperative whenever a large generator, transmission facility, or line goes down. Grid operators around the world are now working with significant and growing wind resources, and despite the kinds of glitches one would expect with ANY new technology being introduced, they have been overwhelmingly successful. That's why wind (and solar) are the fastest growing electricity sources both in the US and worldwide. Deric and Ms. Smith may doubt all this, but so far, at least, no contrary evidence has been forthcoming.

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Posted by JohnGreenberg on 05/04/2014 at 9:29 AM
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