The Coal Issue: Honesty is the best policy

The Coal Issue:  Honesty is the best policy

Many articles have been published about the dichotomy of coal:  we get cheap power from it, but it’s not good for the environment.  There was another one in yesterday’s New York Times, and it followed the predictable story line:  the environmentalists quoted were stubbornly adamant that we need to stop building coal-fired plants and get more renewables on the grid right now, while the utility executive quoted (in this case, Jim Rogers at Duke) seemed to be spinning from a list of talking points carefully prepared by a PR team.

At Shelton Group, we have clients on both sides of this issue.  We’ve also been asking Mainstream Consumers about their take on this whole thing for several years via our Energy Pulse® study. So we have a unique perspective on this issue that bridges the gap between the two camps.  Let’s start with a reality check:

  • Two thirds of the population cannot correctly name our main source for electricity in America (coal).
  • Only 4% of Americans name coal-fired power plants as the leading cause of global warming.  Most either don’t know or think cars and trucks are responsible.
  • While we’re on the topic, 25% of the population disagrees that global warming is caused by man and 15% say they just aren’t sure.

Thus, when either camp talks to mainstream consumers about the coal issue, the majority will respond (though perhaps not in their out-loud voices) with a resounding, “Huh?”

We’ve done study after study with consumers on behalf of our clients, in addition to our proprietary work, and we’ve seen one universal truth, regardless of geography or demographics:  Americans want low-cost, reliable power.  That’s the thing that’s tough to give up about coal — it’s cheap and there’s lots of it.

Another universal truth we’ve seen:  most Americans feel taken advantage of by their utility when they’re asked to pay more to buy a “block” of green power.  In a consumer’s mind, utilities should just be putting green power on the grid and somehow paying for it out of their pocket — in their minds, utilities are already rolling in dough, so there should be plenty of money to get renewables on the grid.

In short, consumers don’t see that they should have to pay any more for cleaner power, and many of them think power’s pretty clean any way (in our soon-to-be-released Utility Pulse study, half the population dubs their utility somewhat-to-very environmentally responsible).  So all this talk about coal being good or bad is just white noise to them.

We encourage both sides of the issue to cut through that white noise and start getting consumers’ attention with a new approach: complete honesty.  To those on the environmental side of the issue:  As you’re talking to consumers about the hazards of coal-fired generation, be honest about how expensive it will be to shift away from it, and start laying out plans for how we can make the shift in a way that doesn’t result in an overnight jump in monthly utility bill costs.

To those on the utility side of the issue:  As you’re talking to your customers about why you want to build more coal-fired generation, be honest that though we didn’t know it when we built out the grid 90 years ago, we now know that coal does pollute the environment.  Tell them you also know folks are struggling to pay their bills…and we can’t live our American Lives without power.

So coal offers a solution in the short-term.  Tell them that we all have a responsibility to shift to cleaner, more sustainable ways of generating power, and the only way to do it without seeing huge jumps in our utility bills is conservation.  Tell them:  use less of the stuff…so even though your cost per KWh may be higher, your monthly bill won’t be.

From a consumer perspective, it’s like your mama always taught you:  honesty really is the best policy.

About the Author

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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