How I got that fact: Transposed numbers add fuel to fiery campaign

As part of our efforts to expand and improve fact checking, the American Press Institute regularly presents tips on how media organizations around the country chase down facts. Today, Mark Olalde of the Arizona Republic talks about a trail of numbers that tripped up a political candidate and needed some explaining. 

FCP logoBackground: Election season is upon us, and Arizona’s Corporation Commission – a statewide elected body that oversees utility prices – is one of the most heavily contested races. Four Republicans and two Democrats are competing for only two open seats, and the GOP primary is getting nasty due to a deluge of mudslinging from outside “dark money” spending.

When the race features actual debate, it usually focuses on the future of Arizona’s energy portfolio. This is the sunniest state in the country, and candidates disagree on how far the state should go in building solar plants, taxing private solar panels, or allowing net metering.

Fact to check: “Nuclear has a leveled cost of about 2.5 cents a kilowatt-hour. Clean coal is about 3.5 cents. Natural gas is about 4.5 cents, but some of our renewables like photovoltaic and solar concentrators are in the 14- to 20-cent range, so what happens is, if we have too much renewables in our portfolio, costs would necessarily go up.”

How I got that fact: This rapid fire list of facts simply begged for a fact check when GOP candidate Doug Little dropped it on an opponent in a televised PBS debate. Not only was the quote full of checkable numbers, but it also seemed strange that nuclear and fossil fuel technology were still this far ahead of renewables.

The fact check process was simple enough. The first step was defining the search and getting up to date on the terms and technologies. The debate centered on levelized cost of energy – LCOE – which is how much a unit of energy costs based on all associated costs from building the plant or wind farm to buying the uranium or coal. I also had to compare operations and maintenance costs – O&M – which are the costs of energy production after the plant is up and running.

I went to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the authority on pricing, and found their latest LCOE estimates for different types of energy. From there, all I had to do was compare them to what Little claimed.

Next, I contacted Little’s campaign to see if they knew exactly where he got these stats, as something like energy cost predictions can easily differ from various, reliable sources. However, his campaign was only able to generally tell me they came somewhere from the EIA and other such agencies. I did not ask for any further comment because the point of the fact check was not to get their thoughts or opinions on what he had said. The fact was a number, and that needed no further explanation.

Comparing several sets of LCOE, O&M, and other costs, it became clear that Little swapped LCOE and O&M, an error that completely altered the truth in the debate over what type of energy portfolio to employ when reducing costs. Regardless, I took the opportunity of the fact check to explain how LCOE of renewables has been falling thanks to continued research, and I used the correct numbers to clearly depict this.

It is also interesting to note that a reader emailed me asking for clarification on the story before proceeding to try to start a debate with me, arguing that renewables would never be cost effective. All his questions and arguments were actually answered in the article, but the lesson I took from that conversation was that you cannot overstate the importance of simply yet accurately explaining energy pricing, technology, and policy.

— Mark Olalde, political watchdog team, The Arizona Republic 

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