Which is better: 100% renewable or carbon free?

by Jun 13, 2018

If you read our blog regularly or if you’ve seen anyone from Shelton speak at a conference, you’ve heard us talk about how important renewables are.

In a current reality where Americans increasingly want to be seen as people who buy eco-friendly products (40%), one of the primary ways we determine if a product is green is by whether or not the manufacturer of the product is green. And so we increasingly look to see if manufacturers are using renewable energy as a way of determining if they are, in fact, green.

Truly, when we ask Americans, “What should companies be doing to be green?” the top answer, regardless of sector, is “use renewable energy.”

It makes sense.

For over a decade, we’ve seen that Americans easily grasp the concept that the sun and wind are plentiful and available and we should make energy from them. This notion also fits two distinctly different worldviews as noted in this post from Lee Ann Head and in our recent report, United We Understand.

Twenty-eight percent of us type out as earth-centric, meaning we believe we have a moral duty to leave the earth as good or better than we found it. Renewables make sense by harnessing the power of earth-based resources that never run out and thereby reducing the use of resources that are finite and damaging to the planet. Conversely, 42% of us type out as human-centric, believing that “people’s only responsibility to nature is to ensure it serves their own best interests.” Renewables make sense by using natural resources to satisfy our electricity needs.

Renewables for renewables’ sake?

So, great, renewables are an obvious way that companies can prove they’re committed to the planet and back up their green product claims. And as a recent New York Times article points out, more and more companies are doing exactly that. But the last line of that article includes this quote: “‘Reaching 100% renewable energy is an important milestone, but it’s just the beginning,’ said Michael Terrell, head of energy market strategy at Google. ‘We have to keep our eyes on the ultimate prize, which is to enable carbon free power in every hour of every day.’”

A couple of our utility clients have wisely brought this up as well: are companies and consumers focused on renewables because they simply want renewables, or is it part of a broader strategy to reduce carbon? If so, renewables can certainly be an important piece of that … but there are other tools in the toolbox as well.

That’s important because, while the utility industry is investing heavily in renewables (I believe as an industry they’re the largest investor, actually), many are saddled with coal plants they simply can’t walk away from without leaving the customers they serve paying for the debt. It’s equivalent to still owing a couple years’ worth of car payments on your primary gasoline-powered vehicle and buying an electric car as well. You still have the payments on the old car even if you’re not using it as often.

Even though coal may be a part of their fuel mix and renewables may not be, other low-carbon sources – like hydro or nuclear – could be, and that would allow those utilities, and their corporate customers, to frame the story differently. For instance, our client, Consumers Energy, recently framed their sustainability commitment in terms of “zero coal by 2040” (as well as an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by the same year).

The bigger question is this …

Can utilities (and other companies) successfully frame their sustainability stories in terms of carbon impact, carbon reduction, or carbon free … or does the story have to be about renewables in order to really gain the highest impact in the hearts and minds of Americans?

We haven’t asked this directly in our Pulse studies, but we’ll find a way to get at it – and to help specific companies and utilities test how to best package this message for their specific situations. Instinctively, I think “carbon reduction” is a harder concept for most of us to understand than “renewable energy.” But perhaps we can all be brought along. Once upon a time, we didn’t understand what a URL or a megabyte was either.

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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.


  1. Ingrid Mattsson

    Great question; great article. Thank you!

  2. OpenDEM

    Yes, the renewable sources of Energy are very useful and as they can be renewable it’s better to use them but up to some limitations only. Because, we have to save our environment and renewable resources for our Next Generations in a healthier way as well. So, Renewable sources are a gift for us from the nature and we should respect nature by keeping it safe in return.

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