How can we disrupt America’s love affair with natural gas and combustion engines?

by Jan 24, 2024

Shelton Stat of the Week

When we asked people around the world to imagine the most eco-friendly person they know and to pick from a list of behaviors the things that person does that makes them eco-friendly, only 30% picked “drives an EV.” — Eco Pulse®, 2023 (Global)

Shelton Group got its start in the sustainability space by working with electric utilities in the late ‘90s to promote their energy efficiency and green power programs. Back then, 60% of our country’s power came from burning coal (and it was a much higher percentage here in Tennessee), so motivating people to use less electricity and/or to pay $4/month extra on their monthly electric bill to add more renewables to the grid felt important…but still like a drop in the bucket.

As you probably know, things have changed dramatically. Now coal only accounts for 20% of the fuel used to make electricity. Just as important, non-hydro renewables (wind and solar) now account for 19% of our fuel mix – up from 2% in 2005.

So, while most of the decline in coal is because utilities have shifted to natural gas (which is still a fossil fuel), the grid is a lot cleaner than it was just 20 years ago. In fact, in 2021, CO2 emissions from electricity generation were 36% below 2005 levels – and on par with emissions for the sector from 1983.

Utilities deserve a lot of credit for making this happen – so if you work for a utility and you’re reading this, you need to tell this story because you’ve been giving people exactly what they want! You’ve been addressing the climate problem in a meaningful way while letting us all go on about our daily lives.

But…now all of us regular humans are going to have to do some things. To hit the GHG reductions needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, people will need to let go of their natural gas-powered appliances and their cars with combustion engines and shift to all-electric. As the grid gets cleaner and cleaner, the easiest way to fight climate change without massive behavior changes is simply to change out the equipment.

That’s easier said than done because we have decades of preconditioning that natural gas is warmer and better than other options:

  • Here in Tennessee, the beloved UT Vols football announcer, John Ward, lent his voice to a natural gas campaign for years. The ads were really lame, but we all loved John Ward, so we believed him when he said natural gas was warmer and better.
  • And it’s not just John Ward. The Natural Gas industry has done a masterful job of selling a value proposition that people care about: it’s warm, clean and creates jobs (they even brilliantly named it “natural” gas which immediately communicates a planet-friendly benefit).
  • This past weekend, HGTV was on in my house. I happened to pass through the den right as a woman was weeping tears of joy over the new gas cooktop in her remodeled kitchen. How long have we been told natural gas is better for cooking? That all the best chefs cook with gas? We have literally turned that into a positive expression: “Now we’re cooking with gas!”.

So, dismantling all this conditioning requires us to deeply understand the emotional connections that exist today – and Shelton Group is on its way. We have just come out of the field with our annual Energy Pulse™ survey and we’ve done a deep dive on this topic. Once we have something useful to share, I’ll do it here and we’ll publish a report as well.

In the meantime, we can learn something about message framing from a recent real-world example. On January 13, there was a lot of press around Hertz’s decision to sell off 200 of its EVs. Both Fox News and CNN ran similar headlines (essentially that Hertz is selling off some of its electric fleet to buy gas-powered cars.) But Fox News anchors used the announcement to offer an opinion as fact, stating, “People don’t want these cars.” CNN explained the move by reporting that EVs are more expensive to repair. Plus resale values on used Teslas (80% of the Hertz EV fleet) have gone down as Tesla has lowered new car prices in order to drive sales.

Fox’s assertion that “people don’t want these cars” isn’t true as far as our research goes, but it’s a more click-baity, memorable spin on the story than CNN offered. CNN could have led with something equally juicy, like, “Tesla destroys market for used EV sales,” thus pinning the problem on corporate decision-making, not on social norming.

I’m not here to play newsroom editor, but just using this example to point to something we should all keep in mind as we craft messaging about electrification. If we assume there will always be a strong faction that doesn’t want any shift away from fossil fuels and that they will leverage an age-old human truth — that we all look to others to decide what behavior is socially acceptable — those of us who want to shift people away from fossil fuels need to get on that same playing field. We need an “everybody wants it/everybody’s doing it” approach, too. Or better, a “nobody wants to be seen burning fossil fuels” approach.

More to come as we analyze our latest consumer research…

News of the Week
Driving toward a sustainable tomorrow: How companies can benefit from fleet electrification
Driving toward a sustainable tomorrow: How companies can benefit from fleet electrification
St. Louis Business Journal

It’s important to remember that the transition to electric vehicles goes beyond personal vehicles. This St. Louis Business Journal article covers not only the emissions savings from transitioning to an electric shipping fleet but the business savings as well.

Read more…

Electrification 101: How RMI’s new tool can help utilities proactively plan for EVs

Electrification 101: How RMI’s new tool can help utilities proactively plan for EVs

While our utility grids have been making the transition to renewables, they aren’t quite ready for a massive influx of EVs plugging in. This 3BL article discusses a new tool called GridUP that utilities can use to better plan for an increase of EVs being added to the grid.

Read more…

Cultures, Countries & Your Sustainability Story

Our annual Eco Pulse® study has gone global. We surveyed people in 12 countries to better understand how they conceptualize an eco-friendly person — and what that means for companies’ sustainability communications. Our latest free report reveals how local cultural values connect to local sustainability concerns and provides specific communications guidance for brands operating and/or selling around the globe.

Hint: Multi-national brands, you don’t want to miss your opportunity to connect on a deeper level with your audiences.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.