Zachary and I were having a conversation in the CleanTechnica executive dining room the other day about renewable energy. While noshing on crostini and capers, the subject of George Lakoff came up, a writer and Democratic strategist known for such books as Don’t Think Of An Elephant. Lakoff’s thesis is that how you frame an argument is often more important the the argument itself.
For most of us, public relations work is a mind-numbing pursuit that involves making up platitudes about people, but it has really become a top level scientific pursuit designed to frame political and corporate policies in ways that will be acceptable to voters.
True, many of the messages involve nefarious goals, such as attacking electric vehicles or demonizing climate scientists, but the techniques can be used to advance either side of an issue. Corporations and politicians spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on PR campaigns. Recently, the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group whose primary clients are utility companies, wanted to find out how customers felt about renewable energy.
Bear in mind that as America descends further into tribal warfare, getting two or more people to agree on anything is well nigh impossible. That’s what makes the results of the survey, which were shared with industry leaders, so shocking. A copy of those results found their way to the desk of David Roberts, a contributing author for Vox.
An Industry In Search Of A Message
The research was conducted by Maslansky & Partners, a market research firm, which analyzed existing utility messaging, interviewed utility execs and environmentalists, ran a national opinion survey, and did a couple of three-hour sit-downs with “media informed customers” in Minneapolis and Phoenix. Here’s one of the slides Maslansky prepared for its clients after all the data was compiled, collated, and crunched.
Some Will Lead. Others Won’t
This information is highly relevant at a time when some states and cities in America are pushing forward toward a 100% renewable energy future while others — Arizona is a prime example — are beating the drum for more coal power, more natural gas, and more nuclear.
Arizona Public Service is spending millions of the dollars it collects from rate payers to fund opposition to a strong renewable energy goal for that state. Corruption on a grand scale is alleged, with many news reports suggesting the utility company in recent years has invested heavily to elect members of the state’s public utilities commission who — rather than being independent and nonpartisan — will faithfully promote policies APS likes.
Voters in Florida say an equally determined push by several utility companies to limit renewable energy policies in that state, an effort that ultimately failed, leaving much bitterness on all sides.
Fear Of Stranded Assets
Utilities are petrified of what economists call “stranded assets.” For the rest of us, that means coal, gas, and nuclear powered generating stations that may have to be retired from service earlier than planned, depriving utilities of years if not decades of revenue.
While it is understandable that no company wants to see its profits impacted, the issue ultimately comes down to whether the best interests of a corporation should prevail over the best interests of society. If the results of the survey are to be believed, the people who participated overwhelming support putting social needs first.
Ready for the most surprising finding of all? 51% of survey respondents said they want more renewable energy even it means their utility bill will go up by 30%!
The survey tested various ways the utility companies could explain to customers why they are slow walking renewable energy. The answer? Don’t even try!
Don’t Lie To Us
The survey results show customers might be willing to cut utility companies some slack on how soon they transition to all renewable energy if they make the right noises about wanting to move in that direction. That’s where the issue of framing the argument becomes critical. “Positive, pro-renewable message first … every time,” the researchers recommend. An anti-renewables message, even a message that implies anti-renewable energy stance, won’t fly with consumers.
Vox’ Roberts summarizes the lessons of the research this way. “The decarbonization ship has sailed. Renewable energy is in the vanguard and, at least for now, it appears unstoppable. At this point, it is difficult to imagine what could turn the public against it. The more relevant question is when lawmakers will catch on to renewable energy’s full political potential.
“The basic message from the public, if I could pull together all the strands of the research, is this: We want clean, modern energy, and we’ll pay for it. We’re willing to let experts work out the details, but we don’t want to hear that it can’t be done. Just do it. (Emphasis added.)
An Editorial From An Unlikely Source
Adding weight to the discussion is an editorial dated September 14 in the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Bear in mind, that state at this very moment is struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, an event that has refocused attention on climate change. The editorial writer has this to say.
“Climate change related to burning fossil fuels is an even more imminent threat. Here in Charleston, sea levels are rising and some data show that storms may be getting stronger. If the planet keeps getting warmer, those challenges are likely to grow even more severe.
“A 100-percent switch to renewables may cost an eye-popping amount of money in the short-term. But over the long-term, solar power is among the cheapest sources of electricity, for example, even compared to options such as coal and natural gas.
“Ignoring climate change costs a lot as well. In 2017, for example, the United States spent a record $300 billion on natural disaster recovery. Not all of those weather events can be blamed conclusively on climate change, but nature’s costly destructive power should not be underestimated.
“To prepare for a wetter future and deal with existing flooding problems, Charleston officials estimate the city needs about $2 billion in new infrastructure. To put that number in perspective, it’s the entire city budget for about 11 years. And that’s one city.
“Rather than embrace a renewable energy future, South Carolina has made it difficult for homeowners to take advantage of solar power. As a Southern state, we ought to put our abundant sunshine to good use — hurricane season aside.”
Bold words for a conservative newspaper in a conservative city in a conservative state.
Utility companies, like automakers, would like to party like it’s 1999 forever, but consumers are beginning to realize their future lies with zero emissions vehicles and renewable energy. The transition has begun. Now we just have to convince the laggards to catch up. If the people will lead, their leaders will follow. Spread the word!
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