Bioenergy, Geothermal, Hydropower, Solar, Wind Power

Renewable Energy as a Mainstream Product Choice

A growing body of opinion research shows that Americans are concerned about how consumption of dirty fossil energies is impacting the environment, threatening national security and hindering long-term economic growth. But when the time comes for action, renewable energy and climate change are not yet true priorities for the everyday consumer.

That’s because many consumers see renewable energy as a major change in lifestyle, not an ordinary product choice, say analysts. Until the industry better addresses concerns about cost, reliability and ease of use, it will simply be easier for Americans not to buy clean energy.

“People will say that they support the environment, that they support clean energy…but when it comes down to real action it has to be easily accessible, and so people don’t want to make complete tradeoffs,” says Ron Pernick, co-founder and principal of Clean Edge, a clean tech research and publishing firm.

In a 2007 analysis of 21 opinion polls on American attitudes toward climate change and renewable energy, American Environics found that there is “widespread agreement that global warming is occurring and that the government should take action to address the problem.” However, when asked specifically about their priorities for Congress and the President, global warming ranked far below issues such as the Iraq War, heath care, education and immigration. Another poll from the Pew Research Center reported climate change ranking 20th out of 23 choices.

The analysis also found that “the public overwhelmingly supports investment into renewable energy technologies,” when the conversation is focused around energy independence, national security and stabilizing energy prices over the long-term.

This research suggests that Americans should be willing to purchase renewable energy. But while clean power offerings from utilities have expanded and sales of solar photovoltaics (PV) and small wind systems are increasing, the numbers aren’t matching up with what people are saying in surveys.

“We looked that this issue and asked, ‘why are they lying to us?'” says Brian Keane, President of SmartPower, a non-profit marketing firm for the renewable energy industry. “Why are people telling us that they support clean energy and then not buying it?”

Of course, upfront cost is a major issue, especially when purchasing on-site generation technologies like PV. However, the broader issue, says Keane, is that the industry hasn’t quite gotten it’s sales pitch down. Because consumers are faced with confusing language, hear contradictory statements about reliability and have fears about making drastic lifestyle changes, they find it much easier to do nothing.

SmartPower has been studying this issue for many years and has undertaken a nation-wide media campaign that addresses consumer confusion in the marketplace. The pitch: selling clean energy not on its environmental attributes, but on it’s ability to be a reliable part of the nation’s energy mix, which in turn will create a more secure, prosperous nation. The organization also provides important information on how consumers can purchase clean energy from their utility.

“We believe that people…will want to buy clean energy if they understand what it is, how they can get it and where they can get it,” says Keane.

Clean Edge’s Pernick agrees with SmartPower’s approach. In his book, The Clean Tech Revolution, he and co-author Clint Wilder lay out five factors necessary for mainstreaming renewable energy. One is Don’t Lead with the Environment.

“That’s something that all clean energy marketers should look at,” says Pernick. “Not just playing on the environmental and green heart strings, but what are all the other benefits? Does it give me energy security? Does it make my life easier? Lead with all the other value propositions.”

An October 2006 poll from Rassmussen Reports found that 73 percent of Americans strongly favor developing new sources of energy, with only 21 percent of Americans saying they favored conservation efforts. That may point to one of the keys for marketing renewable energy to the general public: while efficiency and conservation are very important in the entire energy picture, many consumers care more about what the product can give them, not take away.

Consumers are very reluctant to make an extra effort to purchase a product that they already get easily, says Keane. SmartPower’s research shows that a large number of people think purchasing renewable energy means they must live off the grid and completely change their lifestyle.

“In the mind of the consumer, when they think of clean energy they never equate it to actually being grid connected. They always assume that we are telling them to buy 100 percent solar power and put panels on your house and that’s how you’re going to live,” says Keane.

Now the big challenge for organizations like SmartPower is making sure that Americans understand that buying clean energy is easy, reliable and does not mean sacrificing lifestyle. Only when those issues are addressed, says Keane, will the environmental attributes of clean energy really start to matter to the consumer.

“There continues to be huge confusion about clean energy by, really, the majority of Americans. We need to actively work to clear up the misconceptions about this product. When that happens — when you properly educate people about the buying process and the product — it will really take off. We’re already seeing it in the [media] markets SmartPower serves.”