How Utilities Should Communicate in the Clean Energy Era

The cornerstone of President Biden’s new infrastructure plan is a federal clean energy standard that aims to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035. While utilities have actively supported new clean energy and efficiency programs for years, they sometimes struggle to position themselves as sustainability leaders.

To thrive during this energy transition, utility leaders will need to clearly communicate their sustainability story in a political and regulatory environment where every investment decision will be closely monitored.

What Are Attitudes About Clean Energy Today?

A poll released earlier this year by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication finds that more than 65 percent of Americans support new clean energy efforts. However, this same poll shows that consumer willingness to pay more for renewable energy mirrors the political climate in the U.S. today—half for and half against.

This split is further exacerbated by long memories of previous clean energy political wars. We all remember the blowback from states regarding President Obama’s clean energy plan.

Even with that history and a divided public, there are positive signs undergirding a more successful clean energy push this time around. This includes the reduced cost for renewables as the industry continues to mature, the growing availability of other carbon-free technologies and a strong sustainability story on which utilities can build.

Under A Microscope

A recent ProPublica article notes, “utility companies are an unusually rich source of public records.” Transparency has always been a hallmark of the local utility due to the significant effect the companies’ decisions have on everyone living in the service territory. At a time when utility investment choices are potentially planet defining, this pressure is only going to increase.

As stakeholders ask utilities to do more while putting those actions under a microscope, the potential for mistakes is greater. Today’s utility is more than just the power company. Executives have to be sustainability thought leaders, shareholder pleasers and technologists—and, of course, do all of this while still delivering reliable electricity, water and gas.

What Should Utilities Say About a Clean Energy Standard?

As utility communicators continue to form their response to new and proposed state and federal clean energy standards, there are several foundational items to consider:

  • Utilities Led the Way to Sustainable Infrastructure. The Edison Electric Institute, the Washington voice for investor-owned utilities, says that “wind and solar energy accounted for 75 percent of new U.S. capacity in 2020.” It’s important for utility communicators and executives to remind the public that this push for clean energy is not new to them. Most investor-owned utilities have been working on energy efficiency, renewable power and a more environmentally sustainable generation fleet for decades. Utilities have a chance to drive the narrative here by communicating how these federal policies have already been considered in their corporate planning.

  • Investments Must Benefit Customers. There is going to be a rush to spend significant new money on clean energy infrastructure. The need to clearly communicate how new investments make customers’ lives better will be more important than ever. Utilities are masters of thinking about the customer first. It’s in their DNA. If the value proposition can’t be readily communicated, it’s probably not the right investment.

  • Maintain Message Discipline. All utilities are working hard to show how their environmental social governance programs are built into their company values. Building this brand takes action and message discipline. That may seem like a no-brainer but it’s all too easy to lose sight of the message.

    Early in my career, I worked as a spokesperson for a Fortune 500 utility. At the time, we were internally debating an environmental investment and the engineers didn’t see the upgrade as viable because it cost too much. When interviewed by a local newspaper later that day, I was quoted saying the company didn’t feel this project was worth the money. I learned a valuable lesson about message discipline that day when my boss got a call from the CEO. This did not align with our corporate values.
Smart utilities will rise to the challenge and clearly communicate their value as energy experts while embracing the scrutiny of company plans. This is a defining moment for sustainability and a “define-the-relationship” opportunity for utilities and their customers.
Andy Hallmark
CEO, Clear Strategy Partners
Working with a great group of communications professionals to translate challenging topics for our clients’ audiences. We get to figure out this puzzle every day and it is rewarding to be part of a firm that cares about finding communications solutions that are honest and compelling.