Utility Giant Cuts Ties With Willie Soon

Southern Company supplied nearly $470,000 for research by climate contrarian affiliated with Harvard-Smithsonian, now conducting an ethics investigation

Coal utility Southern Company has funded five of Willie Soon's research projects for a total of $469,560 since 2005. The company has confirmed that it will longer finance Soon's work, which promotes the discredited theory that the sun is a primary driver of climate change. Credit: Screenshot of Willie Soon on Youtube/The Idea Channel

Controversial climate contrarian and Harvard-Smithsonian scientist Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon has one more report to complete for a giant utility company that has pumped nearly a half-million dollars into his highly disputed research before the company cuts his funding.

The Southern Company, which generates power for nine states––largely from coal––has decided it will no longer fund Soon's work, which claims the sun is the primary driver of global warming.

"Our agreement with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory expires later this year and there are no plans to renew it," Southern spokesman Jack Bonnikson said in an email.

Soon is obligated to deliver one final report––"Solar Activity Variation on Multiple Timescales"––by November. Then no more.

Southern's decision comes at a time when the company finds itself in the midst of a firestorm of controversy surrounding revelations that Soon failed to divulge that fossil fuel interests were a primary source of funding for 11 studies published in nine scientific journals beginning in 2008.

Soon did not respond to a request for comment.

In an earlier interview with InsideClimate News, Stephen Smith, executive director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said a Southern Company executive told him the company is severing ties with Soon because it does not want to be associated with his brand of research any longer.

"They claim they do not want to influence the [climate change] science," Smith said. "What I was hearing is that they should not be seen as having a corporate policy on this kind of thing."

Southern has funded five of Soon's research projects for a total of $469,560 since 2005 and appeared to enjoy a cozy relationship with Soon and the Harvard-Smithsonian.

Soon once told a Southern executive that he was finishing a "big, super-duper"  report in 2009 on how the sun affects climate.

The relationship between Soon and Southern  was disclosed in documents obtained by Greenpeace through Freedom of Information Act requests and released by the Climate Investigations Center, an environmental watchdog organization based in Virginia. The records, released in February, show at least one of Southern Company's contracts with Soon and Harvard-Smithsonian included a clause giving the company pre-publication review.

"Smithsonian shall provide SCS  an advance written copy of proposed publications regarding the deliverables for comment and input, if any, from SCS," according to the document. (SCS stands for Southern Company Services, one of many divisions of Southern Company. The term "deliverables" refers to reports, studies, slideshows, speeches and such.)

The contract also states that Smithsonian may name or identify Southern Company in a publication only with "express written consent of SCS."

Soon has worked at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., since 1997 when he was hired to conduct research on long-term stellar and solar variability. 

The Smithsonian Institution opened an ethics investigations in February, two days after the allegations surfaced that Soon failed to disclose his funding sources.

John Gibbons, press secretary for the Smithsonian Institution, said the inquiry is ongoing, with no timetable for completion.

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