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Utilities have a problem: the public wants 100% renewable energy, and quick

Renewable energy is hot. It has incredible momentum, not only in terms of deployment and costs but in terms of public opinion and cultural cachet. To put it simply: Everyone loves renewable energy. It’s cleaner, it’s high-tech, it’s new jobs, it’s the future.

And so more and more big energy customers are demanding the full meal deal: 100 percent renewable energy.

The Sierra Club notes that so far in the US, more than 80 cities, five counties, and two states have committed to 100 percent renewables. Six cities have already hit the target.

The group RE100 tracks 144 private companies across the globe that have committed to 100 percent renewables, including Google, Ikea, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Nike, GM, and, uh, Lego.

The timing of all these targets (and thus their stringency) varies, everywhere from 2020 to 2050, but cumulatively, they are beginning to add up. Even if policymakers never force power utilities to produce renewable energy through mandates, if all the biggest customers demand it, utilities will be mandated to produce it in all but name.

The rapid spread and evident popularity of the 100 percent target has created an alarming situation for power utilities. Suffice to say, while there are some visionary utilities in the country, as an industry, they tend to be extremely small-c conservative.

They do not like the idea of being forced to transition entirely to renewable energy, certainly not in the next 10 to 15 years. For one thing, most of them don’t believe the technology exists to make 100 percent work reliably; they believe that even with lots of storage, variable renewables will need to be balanced out by “dispatchable” power plants like natural gas. For another thing, getting to 100 percent quickly would mean lots of “stranded assets,” i.e., shutting down profitable fossil fuel power plants.

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In short, their customers are stampeding in a direction that terrifies them.

The industry’s dilemma is brought home by a recent bit of market research and polling done on behalf of the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for utilities. It was distributed at a recent meeting of EEI board members and executives and shared with me.

The work was done by the market research firm Maslansky & Partners, 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.

The results are striking. They do a great job of laying out the public opinion landscape on renewables, showing where different groups have advantages and disadvantages.

The takeaway: Renewables are a public opinion juggernaut. Being against them is no longer an option. The industry’s best and only hope is to slow down the stampede a bit (and that’s what they plan to try).

100 percent renewables is a wildly popular goal

The core of the industry’s dilemma is captured in this slide (on the left is the industry perspective):


Utilities don’t think it is wise or feasible to go 100 percent renewables. But the public loves it.

And I mean loves it. Check out these numbers from the opinion survey:


In our polarized age, here is something we almost all agree on: Renewable energy is awesome.

Here’s the most striking slide in the presentation:


In case you don’t feel like squinting, let me draw your attention to the fact that a majority of those surveyed (51 percent) believe that 100 percent renewables is a good idea even if it raises their energy bills by 30 percent.

That is wild. As anyone who’s been in politics a while knows, Americans don’t generally like people raising their bills, much less by a third. A majority that still favors it? That is political dynamite.

Insofar as utilities were in a public relations war over renewables, they’ve lost. They face a tidal wave. So what can they do?

Explaining why 100% renewables is impossible backfires

What they can’t do is tell customers why they can’t do it. Customers do not want to hear excuses.

They tested the following message (this is an excerpt, with emphasis added): “Today, we can choose between a balanced energy mix, which provides reliable energy whenever we need it, and 100% renewable energy. But we cannot have both. We also need to consider the costs. … The logistics, resources, and costs would be immense.”

Nope. Customers didn’t want to hear it.

“You could tell what side he was leaning toward,” said one Phoenix focus-group participant. “He offered no solutions. It was just problem, problem, problem.”

“I want to hear about how the work would get done,” said a Minneapolis participant. “I don’t want to hear him complain about how much work it will take.”

Other can’t-do arguments drew similar reactions:


Can’t-do arguments get a company branded as anti-renewables, and that means Bad Guy. After that, customers aren’t listening.

If they want people to keep listening, utilities must begin by convincing them that they are on board with renewables. Thus, the very first piece of advice on “framing the conversation” reads, “Positive, pro-renewable message first … every time.”

An anti-renewables message, even a message that implies anti-renewables, is simply untenable.

That is worth noting. It’s something I’m not sure US climate hawks or political types have entirely internalized. There aren’t many contested political issues on which public opinion is so unequivocally on one side.

The public might be willing to let the experts work out the details

So utilities must convince customers that they support renewable energy, first thing, off the bat. (The best way to do that, of the options tested, was telling customers about investments — highlighting the rising level of investment in renewables. Money talks.)

If they can make that key connection, then they can swing the conversation around. Once customers are convinced that utilities are sincere about supporting renewables, they become more open to the message that getting to 100 percent will take some time, that it needs to be done deliberately, and that costs need to be taken into account.

“Given the cost and the complexities of it, it should be done gradually,” one Phoenix respondent said. “Not the next five years, but maybe by the end of our lifetimes,” said another.

The researchers tested the following message (excerpted): “[A balanced energy mix] helps us maintain consistent service for our customers and avoids over-reliance on a single fuel type or technology. This means we’re able to bring our customers increasingly more renewable energy without asking them to compromise on reliability or cost.”

That worked much better. “It seemed like we all have the same goal that we’re working toward,” said a respondent in Minneapolis. “In the meantime, they’ll use a balance to serve us. It’s sensible.”

In fact, in terms of reasons not to rely entirely on renewables, by far the most potent argument was that it would slow the transition to clean energy: “We can get to cleaner energy faster and more effectively if we use a range of sources and technologies.”

The state-of-the-art message for utilities, then, is this: Yes, we want to pursue renewables, but to protect consumers, we want to do it in a way that is “balanced, gradual, affordable, [and] reliable.” That means we should avoid, ahem, “short-term mandates.”


(How much this message will merely cover for efforts to block legislation and slow the transition depends on the utility.)

On renewables, “yes, but” is the only counter message left

So where does this leave us in terms of the messaging landscape?

In the 100 percent renewables debate, there are roughly three camps, at least among the researchers, energy executives, climate advocates, and journalists who pay attention to these sorts of things.

The first, with most activists and advocates, supports 100 percent renewables as a clear, intuitive, and inspiring target, an effective way to rally public support and speed the transition.

The second camp believes that the cheaper, safer way to get to carbon-free electricity is not to rely entirely on renewables but to supplement them with “firm” zero-carbon alternatives like hydro, nuclear, geothermal, biomass, or fossil fuels with carbon capture and sequestration. (See this paper, from a group of MIT researchers, for the best articulation of that argument.) This camp supports the strategy California has taken, which is to mandate 100 percent “zero carbon” rather than “renewable” resources, to leave flexibility.

The third camp, containing many utilities and conservatives, flatly doesn’t believe 100 percent carbon-free electricity is possible anytime soon, and would just as soon not close working fossil fuel power plants before the end of their profitable lives. They would like to continue balancing the rising share of renewables with natural gas.

The first camp has won the public’s heart. Big time. Everyone, even those gritting their teeth, has to signal support for renewables if they want to be taken seriously.

There is some room for the third camp to convince the public that the transition to renewables needs to proceed carefully and “gradually.” That’s the ground advocates and utilities will be fighting on in coming years: not whether to go, but how fast. (There’s a lot of room within “not the next five years, but maybe by the end of our lifetimes.”)


And there is some room for the second camp to convince the public that the transition to clean energy is best achieved by relying on sources beyond renewable energy, or at least by not locking ourselves into renewables prematurely. One of the survey’s findings is that under a range of questions, the public does not have a strong preference between increasing renewables and reducing carbon emissions. I doubt most people differentiate the two at all — they are vaguely good, environmental-ish things.

Similarly, I doubt the public at large will care much about the distinction between “renewable” and “clean,” which serves as a pretty good argument for the California approach. (The California approach, or at least earlier variants of it, has helped keep existing nuclear plants running in Illinois and New York.)

But these are implementation details. 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. (Perhaps a giant wind spill?) 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.

Utilities can’t make that sentiment go away, though they can and will try to soften it. In the meantime, in the off-chance that their messaging efforts fail, they’d better get serious about giving customers the clean energy they want.

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