FIVE WITH LAUREN GLICKMAN
SHOULD CLEAN ENERGY’S MESSAGING GET ‘DIRTY’?
Interview by Peg Zokowski, Innovators Ink
I spoke recently with Lauren Glickman, founder and principal of WindyGlick, LLC, a strategic communications shop focused on digital strategy in Washington, DC. Prior to going solo, Glickman re-designed and managed the American Wind Energy Association's (AWEA) social media program and online advocacy portal—www.powerofwind.com—increasing traffic 40,000 percent. She’s also a campaign veteran, having worked on several East Coast campaigns around wind energy, urban development, and off-shore oil drilling from Maine to Florida. In 2011, she earned a victory in the Virginia Statehouse, where she wrote and achieved passage of legislation—Voluntary Solar Resource Development Fund Act of 2011—to promote solar energy projects for homeowners and utilities.
In listening to Glickman recount several of her campaign experiences, I was struck by the critical advantage clean energy opponents seemed to enjoy over clean energy proponents. Sharp, succinct, patriotic messaging met with polite, detail-laden, sometimes finger-wagging slogans from clean energy proponents. The former unapologetically does the thinking for us; the latter asks us to stop and think, while even admonishing. In a society on fast forward, clean energy proponents need to pick up the pace on the messaging front to counteract what is becoming a dangerous and protracted transition to a clean energy future.
Despite the slogan mismatch at times, cleantech must keep big oil up at night. According to an October 2012 New York Times article, “…Big Oil companies have fought to maintain $4 billion of their annual subsidies, while seeking to undermine clean energy investments.” In addition to turning to outside groups to run attack ads such as Americans For Prosperity, the big five oil companies “spent over $105 million on lobbying Congress since 2011, according to lobbying disclosures through the third quarter...[and]…spent ”over $150 million…on [election] TV ads promoting fossil fuel interests….”
Although Glickman has spent the better part of 10 years “talking people off the clean energy ledge” it might surprise you to know that she’s run into the most enthusiastic wind supporters in America’s heartland—Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Missouri—where in places like Iowa over 20 percent of electricity is generated by wind and farmers see it as the next cash crop that could save their family farms.
ii: What triggered your interest/decision to pursue a job in cleantech?
LG: I’m a climate activist at heart. I went to school in New Orleans and graduated just before Hurricane Katrina hit. I watched the Katrina advance toward my home and that’s when the impact of climate change went from theory to reality for me.
Prior to AWEA, I worked on a number of political campaigns. I got my first taste of clean energy working on the Cape Wind campaign out of Boston, Massachusetts. I was engaged in door-to-door education and saw my first industrial wind turbine development in Hull, just south of Boston.
ii: While at AWEA, what was, and perhaps is still, the most common misperception among the public about wind power?
LG: The wind doesn’t blow all the time so how can we rely on that energy source? The American Coalition for a Clean Coal Economy’s message says, “Coal keeps the lights on.” What people don’t know is that coal-fired power plants aren’t always burning and all energy is intermittent. You’ll see grid operators pulling from all sources. Wind can realistically be part of the portfolio because modeling makes it easier now to predict when a wind farm will produce energy; this is harder to do with fossil fuel plants. When coal plants do go offline it’s usually a surprise related to a hardware issue such as pipes freezing; then you have a blackout. Grid operators like wind because it is easier to predict when it will blow and how it interacts with the grid. The best messaging I’ve seen around this subject came from the Energy Foundation’s video “How the Lights Stay on.”
A lot of the public’s misperceptions around clean energy are re-enforced by the fossil fuel industry’s success in co-opting the American energy story and branding themselves as “American energy.” Currently, there is an initiative to repeal State Renewable Portfolio Standards across 29 states. In Virginia, environmentalists are united behind, “Save the RPS” as a campaign slogan while their opponents, led by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), are using the “Electricity Freedom Act” If your choice is to choose between “Electricity Freedom Act” and “Save the RPS,” which would you choose?
ii: Is there one organization doing a good job of countering Big Oil’s and King Coal’s messaging?
LG: The Truman Project’s “Operation Free.” Operation Free works with U.S. veterans who support clean energy in addition to some now working in the industry—reliable messengers who fought for this country. They are focused on talking about what it means to be an American energy source, energy independent, and energy secure—for instance, deploying solar power in the field is safer than running oil to troops.
ii: You're launching your own consultancy soon. How will you know if you're successful?
LG: Beyond the basics—food, water, shelter—I feel successful at the moment because I’m working for issues and progressive causes I care about, while leveraging resources these groups otherwise would not have access to. Looking back at AWEA, I can see where they are now compared to where they were. I define success very concretely, for example: sending 1 million messages to Congress for a campaign vs. 10,000 for an earlier similar initiative.
ii: What do you wish you were asked?
LG: People don’t ask the right questions about what (or in some cases who) is behind the opposition to renewable energy. There is a fossil fuel industry spending billions of dollars propagating myths about clean energy to preserve the status quo. What started out as a few people concerned about a disrupted view shed has become a well-funded machine. No one is asking where the money came from for anti- wind billboards in Idaho or where the funding came from to produce the anti-wind documentary “WindFall.”
In my opinion, people (and more specifically business people) are afraid of the fossil fuel industry. You have to be willing to talk about your competitor’s weaknesses and, in my experience, the cleantech industry at large hasn’t been willing to do this, maybe with the exception of community wind supporters, such as in the case of Coal River Wind project.
If folks are concerned about the construction of an industrial scale wind project in their backyard, perhaps they should spend a night in a West Virginia home in range of blasting from a mountaintop removal (MTR) site. Or, they can speak with the parents of 3-year-old Jeremy Davidson who was crushed to death in his sleep by an 1100-pound boulder that was dislodged from the MTR site above his house in the middle of the night. As a society, we are committed to consuming energy, but that commitment comes with a cost regardless of the energy choices you make. When you’re making a side by side comparison between clean energy impacts and the impacts of coal mining or natural gas fracking the answer becomes pretty obvious.