By Lee Barken, CPA, LEED-AP
Tom Steyer has a vision for a national dialogue about energy production and consumption. At the 2011 gathering of the Cleantech Investor Summit in Palm Springs, California, Steyer shared his perspective on the defeat of Proposition 23, along with how that outcome can inform the national conversation on clean energy issues.
Steyer is an unlikely spokesperson in the clean energy movement. As the founder and co-managing partner of Farallon Capital Management, he has built a career around institutional investing for schools, foundations and high-net-wealth individuals.
“I have been a professional investor for the last 30 years, not having to do with clean energy,” said Steyer. “When Prop 23 was proposed, I assumed that I would do absolutely nothing. When everyone else took the exact same tact as I took, which was to do absolutely nothing, eventually I got so upset and angry that I decided that I would spend my time and put up some money to try and change the dynamic about how this proposition was going to work.”
The Spark of Proposition 23
As Texas oil companies mobilized a campaign to pass Prop 23, Steyer observed that the general lack of an organized coalition against Prop 23 was leading to a tragedy of the commons. “I don’t think I was doing anything smart. I don’t think I was doing anything calculated. I think I just lost my temper and said I’m damned if this is going to happen in our face,” said Steyer.
It was at that moment he decided to take a stand and encourage others to do the same. For Steyer, there was a deep seeded sense of conviction and confidence in his message.
“Do not be disinclined to engage the other side or be intimidated by their brains or their money, because my experience from this and from previous campaigns is we have the brains and we can find the money,” said Steyer.
With a keen and masterful sense of the importance of stakeholder engagement, Steyer served as co-chair of the “No on 23” campaign together with a staunch political polar opposite, former Secretary of State George Shultz. The coalition itself was a demonstration of co-mingled ideologies and strange bedfellows.
“To get a coalition, you need visible leaders so that you can go to the people who are part of their constituency and make your pitch and not be thrown out of the room without a hearing,” said Steyer.
The new clean energy coalition, according to Steyer, needs to be comprised of four essential groups: Business People, Republicans, People of Faith and National Security Professionals (such as the military and Department of Defense).
“I think our goal has to be to build the coalition,” said Steyer. “In order to win this national argument, we have to be able to reach out to the people who aren’t our natural allies and convince them not just that we’re right, but that it’s really important that they be on our side. If we had these four groups, we’d have the passion and we could go anywhere in the United States and make this argument.”
The National Stage
Rather than blaming Washington, DC, Steyer takes the position that the capital will respond to the engagement of the American people at a grassroots level. “Things happen in DC after the country decides what it wants,” said Steyer. “DC is not going to lead. DC is going to be the validation of the conversation that goes on across the country.”
On the national stage, Steyer sees the lack of federal energy policy as a reflection of the public’s lack of engagement in the discussion. “One of the reasons I felt so strongly that we’d never get a major energy bill in 2010 is [that] I can’t believe it’s going to happen without a huge conversation at the national level,” said Steyer.
“If you think about the health care bill, if you think about civil rights, if you think about when we’ve changed massively, there has been a huge conversation with everybody participating, with people airing all their views with a close examination of what’s going on… and there hasn’t been that kind of conversation [around energy].”
Of course, the difference with health care and civil rights is the direct connection that Americans feel with those issues. For most people, on the other hand, energy is an abstraction. We understand that energy turns the lights on and keeps the beer cold, but how it’s made and where it comes from is beyond the familiar patterns of our daily conversations. The key to engagement seems to be in how we make energy issues more approachable.
Winning Hearts, Minds and Solar Panels
“So when we think about this conversation, salience is really important,” said Steyer. “People have to understand, ‘Oh my gosh, this is totally relevant for me. This is an important thing. This is going to change my vote. This is going to change my life.’”
“Until that happens, I do not believe that we will be able to get [changes made]. This is not a minor change. Energy runs through every part of our day and every part of our economy. To change this is going to take a massive change of attitude.”
If ever there was a person capable of inspiring that massive change of attitude, it might just be Tom Steyer. The roadmap he presented at the Cleantech Investor Summit was credible, well-constructed and achievable. Is he up for the challenge? Despite his attempts at self-deprecation, Steyer clearly has a knack for community building and a deep intuitive talent for understanding the dynamics of personal engagement. In California, he was been battle tested with Proposition 23 and came out victorious. What’s next for Tom Steyer? Hopefully more of the same.
A web archive of Mr. Steyer’s presentation is available here.
Lee Barken, CPA, LEED-AP is the Energy and Cleantech practice leader at Haskell & White, LLP and serves on the board of directors of CleanTECH San Diego and as Vice-Chair of the WREGIS Stakeholder Advisory Committee. Lee writes and speaks on the topics of renewable energy project finance, green building, IT audit compliance and wireless LAN technology. You can reach him at 858-350-4215 or firstname.lastname@example.org.