News From Cancun: The Dirty Fight Against Clean Energy

Our guest blogger is Mike Casey, president of cleantech communications firm Tigercomm. The Wonk Room is reporting and tweeting live from the international climate talks in Cancun, Mexico.

When I started working on solar energy issues several years ago, I heard it repeatedly: “Everyone loves solar.” Back then, many people in solar and other cleantech sectors saw long-term meritocracy in the energy business. Public demand, technological advances and an inevitable price on carbon were going to drive cleantech to dominance over time. “Renewable energy,” it was often said, “will soon become just plain ‘energy.'”

From the gridlocked global warming treaty negotiations here in Cancun, however, the picture seems starkly different. The congressional climate bill fight ended in disaster, the recession tightened credit markets, and the coal and oil industries bought themselves a new Congress last month. And that global carbon market many were counting on? The most optimistic note Thursday night from a top U.S. treaty negotiator, Jonathan Pershing, was “Maybe next year.”

Still, cleantech possesses a great combination of assets that many industries spend considerable time and money trying to generate. These include policy momentum, business success, and wide and deep public support. California’s anti-cleantech Proposition 23 lost by a huge margin last month, solar is creating jobs in all 50 states, and over 90% of Americans support solar energy, while 87% believe we should build more wind farms.

However, that asset combination has also moved solar, wind, battery storage, and energy efficiency technologies from being cute niceties to potentially serious market disruptors for traditional dirty energy players. The dirty energy guys know that, and they are acting accordingly:

— A series of anti-cleantech editorials on the Wall Street Journal editorial page

— Sniping from fossil-funded front groups and “experts” for hire

— Seemingly random hit pieces on individual renewable energy projects

— ExxonMobil’s New York Times front page ad falsely equating fossil fuel subsidies with those of wind and solar

— An emerging class of “green ingrates,” pro-dirty energy pundits posing as cleantech players

Chevron’s pioneering of what I’ve begun calling “cleantech washing” — pretending to promote clean energy while actually undercutting it

Virtually all of these attacks push three interlocking memes about cleantech: 1) It’s “not ready”; 2) It’s “too expensive”; and 3) It’s “unreliable.” And the message discipline and sheer number of these attacks make it very likely they are being underwritten and coordinated by people with a vested interest in making them happen.

Cleantech is now in a full-contact game with dirty energy, which is playing accordingly. The attacks by dirty energy are serious, coordinated, and are beginning to get traction in public opinion research. By generating, stimulating, or exacerbating customer concerns about readiness, cost and reliability, the attacks are affecting the marketing and sales environment for large and small cleantech companies. It’s in each cleantech player’s financial interest to help to mount a more concerted effort to push back against detractors.

Clean energy needs to capture people’s imaginations, not just their intellects. There’s far too much engineer-speak, facts, figures, watts, and jargon dominating cleantech communications. Emory University psychologist Dr. Drew Westen conducted groundbreaking research in 2004, finding that people make decisions first and foremost at the emotional level, and only then do they begin rational consideration. In fact, Westen found, humans are incapable of doing otherwise. The cleantech community should assume there’s a reason why deep-pocketed Chevron and the coal front group, America’s Power Army, have spent huge sums on advertising and marketing materials with a certain feel to them.

Cleantech companies have strong individual interests in collective brand defense. A great recent example of a cleantech executive doing his company a service through collective brand defense was SPG Solar CEO Tom Rooney’s piece making the case that political conservatives should support clean energy. “One of the biggest challenges is helping solar companies talk about the context — why they matter and how they’re affecting their industry in the broader picture,” said Edelman’s Kimberly Kupecki at a recent panel. “It’s another way we can simply and cheaply be our own advocates.”

Cleantech voices need to frame the cost argument properly by relentlessly pointing out that fossil fuels’ supposed cheapness is underwritten by massive taxpayers subsidies. On October 12, 2010, Solar Energy Industry Association CEO and President Rhone Resch called for cutting the “grotesque” subsidies to fossil industries. Just two weeks later, ExxonMobil ran a remarkably defensive ad in the form of an obfuscating quiz on subsidies at the bottom of the front page of the New York Times.

Cleantech managers and investors are busy trying to build successful companies, but their growing successes have drawn the opposition of status quo players who don’t want them to succeed. That’s why the dirty energy industries are now spending significant resources to harden the marketing and sales environment against cleantech’s success. All the facts, figures and solid product offerings in the world won’t overcome that problem if this emerging threat isn’t faced.

Dirty energy is playing full contact. Are we ready to do the same?

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