It’s been awhile and an update is overdue. I’m sad to say, I have just one more story in me for the Investigative Reporting Workshop – it should be coming in the next few weeks – but the good news is that I’ve found a new (work) home.
Later this summer, I’ll be starting at TRAC – which, if you’re not an investigative journalism nerd and aren’t familiar with, is short for Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a project of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. TRAC does a lot of things, but primarily they collect massive amounts of data about just what the government does everyday, and then publicizes their findings. Or, more formally, from the website:
“The purpose of TRAC is to provide the American people — and institutions of oversight such as Congress, news organizations, public interest groups, businesses, scholars and lawyers — with comprehensive information about staffing, spending, and enforcement activities of the federal government. On a day-to-day basis, what are the agencies and prosecutors actually doing?”
This is accomplished a lot of different ways, but a huge chunk of the data is obtained via FOIA, a personal passion of mine. I’ll be signing on for nine months as an investigative reporter, under a fellowship with Syracuse that runs through the academic year. We haven’t quite nailed down my duties, but I’ll certainly be posting updates on my new work here once I get going.
But I won’t be giving up my green reporting either – in the few months before the new job kicks off, I’ll be freelancing some stories at various places – again, I’ll be linking them here. And, to say that I have a lot of unfinished business from the Workshop is an understatement – one of my favorite things about working there was how each story spawned three or four new story ideas. And that’s not changing just because I’m leaving – I’ve got stacks of documents, tips and FOIA requests waiting to be returned, that have left me with material to write for months.
Hopefully, the stories will keep coming, and to all those who still contact me about previous stories, offer tips or want to talk about my presentations at Reynolds, keep emailing – I’ve always got time to talk.
I’ve mentioned in the past that I’ve got some FOIA problems – Treasury/Department of Energy and I don’t see eye-to-eye on some things. In fact, we don’t see eye-to-eye on anything, apparently, since a FOIA I filed 18 months ago has yielded nothing that I originally asked for.
I asked for all applications to the Section 1603 grant program, which I’ve reported on extensively, as well as a great deal of internal correspondence on the program and correspondence about press coverage, etc.
What I’ve gotten is a partial list of applicants (which wasn’t what I asked for) from December of 2009, and a sample application, mostly blacked out. You can view the partial list of applicants if you want to see who’s been going to the administration with their hand out, but be warned – the data is a bit dodgy: there are a lot of corporate names, LLCs, shell companies, etc., and some just downright bad data (someone filed their application with the “name” entry filled out with “not applicable” – there’s no other data because the administration has kept it under lock and key thus far.)
To make a long story short, the administration has told me it will cost at least $12,400 for copying and duplication fees to get the public documents I’ve asked for, and we’re stuck there, because that’s absurd. I don’t want copies and I don’t need copies – an electronic version of the public records is not only possible, it’s preferable - but the administration isn’t willing to consider either of those things.
It took awhile, but someone finally picked up on one of the key points – maybe THE key point – underpinning most of my reporting on how a great deal of stimulus money for green energy is actually going overseas…
Yesterday, Oakley Brooks had a piece in Miller-McCune discussing how the United States is stacking up against foreign competitors when it comes to clean-tech:
“There’s a lot of hand-wringing these days about the mediocre American record on clean energy. No federal climate legislation. No federal mandates for clean electricity. And when Americans look to incentive-laden Europe or to the huge clean-tech investments being made in China and Korea, we feel like an aged, belching Geo Metro being passed on both sides by sleek bullet trains,”
The point is, Brooks put my reporting in the context of discussing how weak our domestic green industries are – or totally nonexistent. And, when I started my reporting on the subject, I felt that was the main takeaway – the poor policy decisions of the 1980s and 1990s that neglected or even punished clean-tech industries (like green energy and mass-transit) brought us into the 21st century with a seriously weakened or non-existent industrial base. The Section 1603 program basically hands out money to anyone who lines up to take it and can meet minimum standards (basically – if you can establish you own a renewable energy generation system and if you spell your name right, you’re all set to get a check!), so while it’s interesting that European and Asian companies were primarily benefiting from this program, the big question is: why aren’t American companies lining up to get their share?
Because there aren’t many American companies at all.
Rather naively, I thought that’s what people would see as the “big picture” story behind my reporting. But, this being Washington, D.C., a town where everyone is loathe to admit any kind of weakness, I found nobody wanted to talk about how battered our industry was from past mistakes and that maybe before we promise hundreds of thousands of jobs, we should deal with the fact there isn’t an industry to create those jobs in. This unwillingness to look at the context of the story (or even bitterly deny it) didn’t have an effect on my reporting or the facts of the story, but I think it has done a disservice to the overall discussion and has obscured a huge hurdle to establishing long-term sustainable clean-tech industries (and the jobs that come with them) here in the United States.
A little update on the Section 1603 grant program – one of the stimulus bill’s largest and most direct programs for green energy. The ostensible purpose of the program was to create green-collar jobs for American workers by reimbursing developers of green energy projects up to 30 percent of the cost of their investment – in a direct, cash grant.
The grant program was originally set to expire on Dec. 31, 2010, but when Congress passed an extension of the Bush tax cuts, they slipped in an extension of this program as well, and so the grant program continues to roll on – and continues to hand out money at a very fast clip.
It is now a $6.4 billion program, that has partially funded 2,194 projects. I’ve broken out some of the interesting facts about the program in the chart below (click for full size), or you can download the latest Section 1603 numbers yourself here (xls).
Treasury has actually released a fairly informative set of analysis updating on the progress of the program (available here in .pdf). But, a warning about the numbers you get from the Treasury site: they’ve stopped announcing recipients by project and are lumping all of a company’s awards together, so it’s increasingly difficult to tell where the money is actually ending up.
I have a FOIA filed with Treasury to try to pry even some basic information out of them about who exactly the money is going to, for what projects and what kind of jobs have been created, but I’m not holding my breath – I started the process 17 months ago and I’m still being stonewalled. Fans of FOIA fights stay tuned, I’ll be posting on that debacle soon!
And as always, if you’re a reporter or regular citizen looking to understand the grant program better, feel free to contact me.
I’m a little tardy in posting this, but in early December we published my most recent story on how stimulus dollars for green energy are being spent.
Since I first wrote about the issue, one project in particular has really driven the story in the national media: a proposed Texas wind farm that backers hope to build with Chinese-built turbines. The backers also hope to cash in as much as $450 million in stimulus grants for the project – despite the fact that most labor-intensive work, and the most highly-skilled jobs, will be created in China with the manufacturing of the actual turbines.
In my latest piece, I investigated the background of the project developers – as it turns out, the American investment firm driving the project consists of four very well-connected Democrats, including two registered lobbyists. You can read the story here, on the Investigative Reporting Workshop’s website, or the version published by our partners on the project, MSNBC.com.
I just finished speaking at a workshop on, “What’s next for the economy in your town?”, organized by the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism. I spoke at a conference on covering the green economy for them back in June, and wrote an article for their blog earlier this month, about drilling down into stimulus numbers for good local stories. Once again, I had a great time, met a lot of interesting reporters – both in the audience, and among the other presenters who included Matt Apuzzo, an investigative reporter with the AP’s Washington Bureau and Jennifer LeFleur, who has helped spearhead ProPublica’s comprehensive coverage of the stimulus.
I talked about five local green stimulus stories you can do right now (archived video and a copy of my PowerPoint are on the Reynold’s Web site), and I said I would post at least two important links.
First: The latest list of Section 1603 grant recipients (.xlsx). And a link to the Treasury Website where the list is updated weekly and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
Second: I noted a bunch of businesses and projects – like big boxstores and schools – who received grants, but noted that because of a recent change in the way they post the information, they aren’t explicitly listed (the company that helped them get the grant might be instead)… So, here’s a version of the Section 1603 recipients from May 28, with the old-style of listing names that includes schools, big-box stores and universities (.xlsx).
And if you’re a reporter working on a story, don’t hesitate to drop me a line. And thanks again to the Reynolds Center for inviting me talk!
My Blown Away series for the Investigative Reporting Workshop has looked at how much money the stimulus grant programs for green energy sent overseas twice now (here and here), but last week we came out with most recent entry, which took things in a slightly different direction: a close look at the administration’s own claims on how the money was spent and how many jobs were created… here in the United States.
We followed our tradition of getting some pretty big name “old-media” partners to work on the story with us and help us with distribution (we went with the Financial Times and ABC’s World News with Diane Sawyer on the last two, respectively) and this time, MSNBC.com partnered with us. I worked closely with their main investigative guy, Bill Dedman, on some close edits of the story, and in the end, they ran a version of the story and so did we.
Their version, which ran with the rather provocative title, “Hot Air? White House takes credit for Bush-era wind farm jobs” sat on top of their front page for most of the morning – which is pretty great, considering it’s routinely the number one most read news site. It also racked up over 1,600 comments on their site.
For those who are here looking for more info on the subject, I would highly recommend reading a series on the effectiveness of stimulus money put together by Anne C. Mulkern. It’s a big three-parter that goes far beyond what we wrote, but definitely start with the first story, in which Anne went after a similar question that I did (coincidentally, at almost the same time I did) focusing on how much and how effective the money spent on wind farms that were completed before the stimulus ever arrived o the scene really was.
In West Virginia’s third congressional district, Republican Spike Maynard released a new campaign ad last weekend challenging incumbent Nick Rahall on his vote for the stimulus package, which Maynard’s ad claims created jobs in China building wind turbines. Rahall wants the story pulled for being factually incorrect, and Maynard is refusing.
The controversy over the ad was first picked up Politico, and I attempted to put a little context in with a blog post over at the Investigative Reporting Workshop’s Shop Notes blog. And now, the accusation of using green stimulus money to create jobs in China is surfacing in other races, like in the Illinois race between Republican Bobby Schilling and Democrat incumbent Phil are.
Based on the reporting I’ve done on the subject, neither the Republicans making the accusation or the Democrats trying to argue it’s a non-issue are getting it right. And both are using badly outdated numbers. I’ve put together a short FAQ to help answer questions raised by these ads and the defense against them.
Did foreign companies get money from the stimulus to build wind turbines?
I’ve recently recalculated the numbers and found:
Of the 1,100-odd projects funded under the stimulus green energy grant program, 75 were major wind farms.
Those wind farms picked up $4.4 billion worth of grants.
54 percent of that – $2.38 billion — has gone to foreign developers. A total of 4,232 turbines were erected on those 75 farms, and 2,760 were built by foreign manufacturers – that’s 65.2 percent. Some of those foreign manufacturers have factories in the U.S., but not all of them and geography and the difficulty in moving giant turbine parts means that even some companies with factories here have still brought equipment from overseas. (See my February story to see how we tracked one Indiana wind farm’s parts to Vietnam and Denmark.)
But, isn’t it true that 100 percent of the projects were built in the United States?
This is a fact being offered by Democrats, who cite a rebuttal to my stories from the American Wind Energy Association. This is true, and AWEA is correct in stating that, but it has nothing to do with the issue – it’s a red herring. What’s at issue is who owns the companies who are benefitting from the stimulus dollars, and even though the numbers have shifted dramatically in the favor of American developers (see above) more than half of the money has still gone to foreign-owned developers, and 65.2 percent of the turbines built were still built by foreign manufacturers.
So, did the stimulus send money to China to create jobs building wind turbines?
Yes, but it’s not fair or true to say that most or all of the money went to create jobs in China. Respected independent fact-checking website Politifact dealt with this question last spring, when Sarah Palin incorrectly claimed in a Facebook post that 80 percent of stimulus money for alternative energy went to China.
Of the 4,232 turbines that have been built under this program, only three have been purchased outright from China. And the wind farm in Texas has not been built … yet. So, it hasn’t gotten any money… yet. But if a certain amount of work is done on the project by Dec. 31 of this year, it can still qualify for the money. And the Texas farm is very much still on the table. In fact, the Chinese manufacturer of the turbines announced they have built the first turbine to send to the United States.
That said, many of the turbine manufacturers (foreign and domestic) rely on a supply chain that’s partially-based in China. So, except for those three turbines in Minnesota, no whole turbines have come from China, but parts almost certainly have. We don’t know how many unless the companies that brought them in decide to share that information, so we can’t say for sure how many Chinese companies have benefitted and how many Chinese jobs were created.
It is safe to say far more jobs were created in the United States and Europe, than in China.
Back in June when I talked at the Covering the Green Economy conference, I told attendees there are a ton of really good, small and local stories in the green energy grant programs under the stimulus – particularly the Section 1603 grant program (which offers developers of renewable energy up to 30 percent of their investment in cash.)
I’ve found some good stories – on the national and international level – amongst the hundred or so really big grants (over $5 million) that have primarily gone to big industry players (many of them foreign.) The top 100 grants account for 94 percent of the $5.2 billion that has been given out (as of 9/8/10)…
…but there are another 1,014 grants that have been awarded. Most of them are very small and target local businesses. While I’ve found that big multi-national corporations and conglomerates have dominated the biggest projects, installing mostly foreign-made equipment and employing Americans mainly during the short-term construction phase, these small installations may well be the long-term legacy of the grant program – developing local jobs and expertise in green energy.
While the big grants may expand our renewable energy capacity in leaps and bounds every time one of them lands, the small grants might be helping take small renewable energy set-ups – rooftop solar and small wind – from hippie hobby to part of your local electrician/plumber/contractor’s regular repertoire.
In yesterday’s Austin American Statesman, Asher Price, one of the Covering the Green Economy attendees, dived into that topic – writing up a solid story on DogBoy’s Dog Ranch and their $23,948 stimulus grant for rooftop solar panels. It’s one of the grants I pointed out to the attendees as interesting and possibly indicative of a side of the stimulus green energy grants that hasn’t really been explored – I’m glad to see Asher picked it up, and developed his own story.
Since that conference in June, another $2 billion has been given out to another 400 recipients, each one a legitimate story on its own. Hopefully, more local reporters will follow Asher’s lead and we’ll see more stories about what the green energy stimulus grants are doing at the local level.
A quick programming n0te: In October, I’ll be talking to another group of reporters about how to pull good local stories from the jaws of the stimulus bill (again for the Reynold’s Center for business journalism, at their “What’s Next for the Economy in Your Town“, here in the District on Oct.27).
It’s been a lot of fun working with the investigations editors, James Grady and Bonnie Goldstein – two long-time and well-respected investigative journalists (Jim also wrote Six Days of the Condor, and then helped write the screenplay for the Robert Redford movie Three Days of the Condor.) Having my piece run on a site that reaches 5 million unique viewers a month is a nice perk too. Hopefully, this will be the first in a long line of collaborations between the Workshop and PD…
To read more on the collaboration and the latest figures for the stimulus grant program, check out my new post on the Workshop’s Shop Notes blog.
Speaking of collaborations… last week, I lent my old pal Manuel Bewarder a hand compiling a piece on the U.S. lobbying activities of the top 50 German companies. A German-language version of the article ran in Die Welt, a German national daily newspaper, where Manuel is a reporter, and I helped craft an English-language version for the Workshop’s Web site.
But, I’m not the only one collaborating at the Workshop…
In today’s Politico, our resident broadband guru John Dunbar pulled the curtain back on how Comcast has been hiring former FCC employees – including former top aides to the FCC’s loudest critics of media mergers – to lobby Congress and regulators on allowing a merger with NBC Universal
Earlier this week, we finally published an incredibly thorough FOIA audit of the District of Columbia’s main agencies, including some neat tools to identify which agencies failed to provide what information. It was put together by our two amazing interns from Howard University, Melissa Noel and LeeSandra Alexandre, in collaboration with the D.C. Open Government Coalition.
Russ Choma is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and investigative journalist. He has worked in newspapers, specialty publications and is now freelancing. Russ has been a contributor at several publications including the Investigative Reporting Workshop, Nieman Watchdog and Grist.org, and regularly writes about climate and energy issues, transportation and stimulus spending.