By Mike Casey
Two weeks ago, I visited the office of a friend of mine, a partner at a top cleantech Silicon Valley law firm. He and I shared a concern about the increasingly hostile, anti-clean energy propaganda from dirty energy-funded critics who are trying to position clean energy as expensive, subsidy-dependent, and “not ready.” The good news, my friend said, was that he’s increasingly hearing from cleantech executives and investors concerned about these growing attacks on their investments. The bad news was that many of those concerned don’t connect the attacks with the dirty energy money that’s funding them.
“Now what cleantech needs to hear is, ‘No more Mr. Nice Guy’,” he told me. “These [dirty energy] guys are out to kick our butts, and they will if we let them.”
I think my friend is right. However, after attending last week’s Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit, I think there’s a ways to go before enough cleantech players see that dirty energy is using media and government to protect its capital investments and decades-long feeding at the public trough.
The Summit was a highly informative gathering of top-flight speakers and a room full of connected cleantech heavy hitters. Yet, I heard repeated discussions on the stage and in the hallways about renewables’ “subsidies.” All of it was in a tone best suited to a 12-step program: Are we “too subsidized?” How long should our subsidies last? Can we “justify” them?
I didn’t hear a cumulative minute spent on putting public policy support for renewables in an accurate frame:
- Fossil fuel welfare costs exponentially more than the current, basic policy support for renewables.
- Policy support for clean energy is something that taxpayers want by overwhelming margins of 70%-90%, while only 8% of Americans want coal and oil corporations to continue receiving their current federal subsidies.
- Highly profitable, mature dirty energy industries don’t just get subsidies. They’re also showered with tax breaks, cheap access to public property and forgiven externalities - $500 billion annually for coal alone.
- Though it claims it’s cheap, dirty energy is on its seventh decade of welfare, without which it can’t survive, according to one of its most ardent defenders.
Reinforcing this imbalance was Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg, who was invited as a “thought leader” to present his newest diatribe: We should invest (!) in clean energy, but it should be "developed" before it’s commercialized. With his advanced degree in self promotion, Lomborg has acquired the special insight to know that “wind and solar are not going to revolutionize the world,” they “are still very inefficient and expensive,” and they’ve “flatlined.” According to him, clean energy is “trying for something that feels good but doesn’t really do good.”
Alrighty then. I hope he at least had to pay to get on that stage.
I don’t want to be ungracious to the Summit’s organizers. But the fact that a serious cleantech forum gave a high-profile platform to the equivalent of a rodeo clown reinforces that far too many cleantech players are operating from a debilitating and inaccurate messaging frame. Many have internalized the competitors’ view of cleantech as a “not ready,” a deeply flawed, artificial creation of government subsidies.
That framing, and its purveyors, are key parts of the competitors’ playbook. And we’re helpfully going along with them, just like they need us to do.
The question is, why are we doing that?
Cleantech executives are busy. Its investors have a 1990s’ lens of meritorious markets and capitalism as creative destruction. Still others think government doesn’t really matter. But I think the reason is that very, very few cleantech investors or executives have ever had a reason to spend much time experiencing how the $3 billion influence peddling industry turns government into a weapon of business strategy – with propaganda as integral tool.
So, it’s understandable why so many in cleantech doubt that there’s an emerging, serious challenge from dirty energy that needs to be met. But understandable doubt isn’t doubt without costs.
And those costs can be steep. They can come in the form of $10 billion in handouts for a coal-to-liquids energy plan; blocking a national renewable portfolio standard; stopping a shift of $30 billion in federal oil and gas giveaways to renewables energy companies; or getting coal counted as “clean” so coal plants can get federal renewable energy tax credits.
So far, cleantech’s response has been largely…. Well, to spend time debating ourselves about whether or not the other side has a point.
Shouldn’t we leave that to ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy, and their mouthpieces like Lomborg? Instead, our job should be to ramp up the communications for our individual companies, our successes, our technological advances, and our job creation. We can do that not just through our trade associations and nonprofit allies, but by helping individual companies see that it’s in their bottom-line interests to promote not just their successes, but the promise of the industry of which they are a part. And, we should create new communications infrastructure to engage in an ongoing conversation with customers, policymakers, and the influentials who affect the sales environment for individual companies.
Right now, cleantech is betting that it’s OK to operate from the opponents’ playbook because what our status quo competitors are doing isn’t going to work. I think that’s gambling a lot on a bet we don’t have to make.