Energy is a Consumer Issue. Why are we Drowning it in Politics?

By Brian F. Keane

I’ve spent much of the last decade marketing clean energy and energy efficiency to the American people. And I’m worried that we’re about to blow it.

Let me explain. A little over 30 years ago, then-President Jimmy Carter held a press conference on the roof of the White House. The subject: his new solar panels. It was 1979 and the environmental movement was gaining real steam. “Energy” and “conservation” had become cornerstones of the mainstream political debate. A sustainable future, fueled by clean energy, seemed like a reality.

Unfortunately, all it took to crush this momentum was the 1980 presidential election. Carter lost, and the rest is history. President Ronald Reagan wasted no time getting the panels off the White House roof, setting back the sustainability movement for decades to follow.

Now we’re at a similar crossroads – and we’re in danger of marginalizing clean energy and sustainability issues again. A casual observer might call me crazy. After all, anything tagged “green” and “sustainable” finds itself at the nexus of a trendy social movement, making these terms some of the most pervasive political and cultural buzzwords of our modern times. What’s more, our sitting president preaches his own form of the clean energy gospel, even taking an eerily familiar action: announcing plans for a solar installation at the White House.

I’m glad that sustainability is on President Obama’s mind. But he’s not doing anything different. In fact, he’s using the same playbook as Carter: energy is a symbolic political issue that we wield like a stick – not as a force of reason. Let us not forget that Obama is up for reelection in 2012. Even if he wins, no one’s crystal ball has much to say about 2016 and beyond. Who’s to say that, when the next Republican takes office – whether it’s sooner or later – that he or she won’t follow an alternate course of political symbolism?

Progress on energy has never relied on politics. It relies on old-school market research, new-school behavior change science, and boots-on-the-ground community outreach. And it relies on clean energy (and energy efficiency, for that matter) being sold to the American people as consumer products, no different than McDonald’s or Coca Cola.

Proper messaging is huge. The truth is that “doing good” and “saving the environment” are poor sells on everyone: the converted already get it, and the rest – who might recoil in horror at the mention of environmental messages – will ignore it. Besides, they evoke sacrifice and deprivation. (Think of Jimmy Carter turning down the heat and donning his sweater.) My organization, SmartPower, has conducted consumer research that shows messages about saving money, investing in home comfort, creating jobs, and keeping down one’s energy costs over time are much more compelling. These findings are even more vital in today’s economic climate, when clean energy and energy efficiency are real, viable ways to get people back to work while helping homeowners save real money. This is how we should be talking to the American people about energy.

Advancements in behavior change science are sweetening the pot. Companies like OPOWER have made themselves household names by leveraging your interest in keeping up with your neighbors – whether that’s manicuring the lawn or saving money on your energy bills. SmartPower’s research with consumers across the country has been discovering similar results. We translate that into on-the-ground community outreach campaigns that demystify clean energy and energy efficiency, helping to boost solar installations (in Arizona) and elective green power purchases (in Connecticut), just to name two examples. This stuff works – and it’s changing the game.

It’s my hope that President Obama will continue to be a champion of clean energy and sustainability. But I also hope he heeds the warnings of those of us on the ground, spreading the value of clean energy around the nation. We have a golden opportunity to change the tide for good. Let’s not blow it.

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Brian F. Keane is President of SmartPower, the nation’s leading marketing firm devoted to promoting clean energy and energy efficiency. For more information, visit www.smartpower.org.

Ali Hart is a sustainability messaging and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and media. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to message green effectively.

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