To each audience, the clean energy industry was happy to play the role of hero. It paid off, too. Private investors lavished hundreds of billions of dollars on startups in sum, while politicians from both parties approved taxpayer-funded grants and incentives.
But thanks to the Great Recession, clean energy felt pressure to focus its narrative around a single storyline: Invest in us, and you’ll get jobs. The hook worked, and helped the industry win billions under President Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill.
But the victory came with a price. Suddenly, it wasn’t good enough to be the hero to various narratives, whether the fear was climate change, foreign oil or high energy prices. The industry had to produce tens of thousands of new jobs – fast. Clean energy start-ups revisited their business plans, looking for ways to grow faster so they could win stimulus funding. Many hired, but had to fire soon after. The economic wreckage turned the industry into the second coming of the dot.com bust.
Today, clean energy isn’t at a crossroads – it’s on the rocks. High-profile industry failures such as Solyndra and A123 Systems are poster children for the dangers of hyping businesses before they’re ready. Skeptics have pounced on each business misstep to argue that renewables don’t deserve government support.
Suffice to say, much of the criticism was directed at Obama, and the clean energy industry was collateral damage. So with the campaign season now firmly behind us, and President Obama vowing in his Inaugural Address to recommit to the climate change agenda, it’s time for clean energy companies to rewrite their narrative. They can accomplish this in a combination of three ways.
First, they need to acknowledge that “climate” isn’t a dirty word. In fact, it’s more topical than in recent memory after a particularly devastating period for weather-related disasters. A recent Yale Project on Climate Change Communication report found that 70 percent of Americans believe global warming is a reality, the highest level in five years. And that was before Superstorm Sandy flooded New York and became the second most expensive storm in U.S. history.
Second, the domestic clean energy industry needs to cool it on China. For too long, clean energy advocates raised the specter of China’s own clean energy industries to drive support for companies in the U.S. But China isn’t the threat we feared. China’s biggest solar panel makers are losing up to $1 for every $3 of sales, many of its wind turbines can’t connect to the electric grid, and shares in its top electric vehicle maker are under pressure after a well-publicized battery fire.
In the end, China won the race to make and sell clean energy cheaply, but its products are seen as commodities. The U.S. clean energy industry can still own the high-ground of quality and advanced technology and design.
Finally, it’s time to stop using the future tense. Clean energy companies need to build their reputation on results. At home, more than a dozen states now draw at least 15 percent of their power from renewable generation sources, including hydroelectric. Widespread use of energy efficiency technologies was a key contributor to the nationwide decline in energy use last year, cutting power bills for homes, buildings, and factories across the U.S.
Overseas, solar panels are boosting fish farm yields in Haiti to help address widespread malnourishment. Wind turbines are bringing electricity for the first time to rural India. Waste-to-energy technologies are generating power from trash in parts of Africa.
Each one of these innovation examples is a chance to tell a story rooted in the real world and not stuck in some grand vision that may or may not come to pass. Success is infectious – once people see what is possible today, they are much more likely to try to invest in and pursue those examples.
Above all, clean energy companies must do more than tell a story – they have to be part of one. Skeptics of the industry, whether they doubt the science behind climate change or the income statements of clean energy companies, will continue to have the edge until the industry can show convincing and genuine success: Not just promised jobs but sustainable and prosperous businesses; not just a vision of leading-edge technology but products and services sold and in use; not just a vow to address climate change but illustrative evidence that the technology is reducing carbon.
The best stories, after all, are the ones that are true.
Will Edwards is a senior writer at 30 Point Strategies in Bethesda, Maryland. He was a contract speechwriter at the U.S. Department of Energy from 2007 to 2010.