I was on a plane last week when Mitt Romney delivered his speech deriding Donald Trump as a fraud, a bully and generally unfit for office. As soon as I landed and saw what he had said, my gut instinct was that Romney had made a “yuuuuge” strategic error. He had literally embodied the very reasons that the people who support Trump have for supporting him. He had come off like the typical elitist, insider politician Trump supporters are tired of, essentially saying, “Look, you’re not getting it. Listen to me, I’m clearly smarter than you, so let me tell you how it is.” By calling Trump unfit, he called his supporters unfit. And, predictably, those people said F-you and dug their heels in harder, supporting Trump to three more victories this week. (And a new poll actually shows Romney’s speech pushed one-third of GOP voters to be more supportive of Trump.)
It reminded me very much of how utilities typically handle rate cases, especially the ones around net metering.
Though my friends in the solar industry likely won’t like this characterization, the parallel here is that solar supporters are like Trump supporters. They’re tired of the establishment (utilities), they think important change isn’t happening quickly enough, and they’re over being told, “It’s not your turn yet” or “You can’t just change the system overnight.” So they’ve mobilized and created a populist form of energy that’s now widely accessible and affordable. When utilities try to change what they pay for energy generated by rooftop solar, utilities come off just like Mitt Romney.
“No, no, no … let me tell you how it is. Solar is unfit for wide consumption … we should take a measured approach. And, besides, you should feel bad for us – it’s unfair that we have to pay a homeowner a much higher rate for their solar power than we would pay to get the same amount of kilowatts from another source,” they essentially say. And though that may be an accurate statement, you simply can’t fight an emotional argument with a rational one. Every time utilities take this approach, they come off like bullies on the playground and give solar supporters new motivation to do everything in their power to defeat the establishment (the utility industry).
Much has been written and many strategists have been quoted about the notion that if Trump is the Republican nominee, the GOP as we know it will implode. I could say the same about the utility industry. If utilities continue to demand that they earn a profit according to their current business model instead of figuring out how to earn a profit while helping their customers achieve their clean energy goals, the utility industry could implode.
Every time one of these very public fights erupts between the utility industry and the solar industry, it sends a direct message to our nation’s largest companies that if they’re going to add renewables into their mix, they’d better call a solar or wind developer to help them out since, clearly, the utility industry doesn’t want to be involved. And our nation’s largest energy consumers are turning to renewables in droves. Energy efficiency and renewables top the list of sustainability priorities for our country’s largest companies, and efforts like RE100 (which asks companies to commit to being 100% renewable) are gaining traction.
So, to the utility industry, I say this: don’t be Mitt Romney. Don’t be Donald Trump, either. Get it that the way forward is in finding common ground, re-imagining business models and communicating about all of that in a compassionate, authentic way. That’s the best way forward for the industry, and our country.