The Green Police

Deck: 

Technology advances despite a political conflict.

Fortnightly Magazine - March 2010

Opinion polls show that Americans are growing tired of eco-nannyism. This isn’t a new trend, but on February 7 it went prime-time, during the biggest TV event of the year: Superbowl XLIV.

During the fourth quarter, the big game’s record-breaking 100 million-plus TV viewers witnessed a new commercial for the Audi A3 TDI luxury sedan. Set to the tune of “The Dream Police” (a 1979 hit by the band Cheap Trick), the 60-second Audi ad depicts so-called “green police” arresting people who install incandescent light bulbs and throw batteries in the trash. The punch line arrives when a green cop at a traffic checkpoint identifies an Audi A3 and tells the driver, “Clean diesel … you’re good to go, sir.”

Audi’s ironic ad simultaneously ridicules the green movement and promotes the green cred of its product, which the company says produces 30 percent less greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions per mile than a comparable gasoline-powered car. In this way, the company’s marketing strategy assumes at least two things about prospective Audi buyers:

1) They’re sick and tired of eco-preaching. They’re choking on locally grown, fair-trade, organic tofu burgers, and they’re ready to kick the next person who mentions a carbon footprint; and

2) They expect eco-regulation to persist and intensify. When they go car shopping, they believe fuel economy and emissions performance increasingly will dictate their choices. They don’t necessarily like it, but they view it as inevitable.

All of this suggests a couple of interesting lessons for U.S. utilities.

First, as we seek ways to bring ratepayers on board with such green-energy options as conservation, demand response and renewable energy, we might assume that many of them will find the whole thing annoying at best. They’ve seen it coming and they’re ready to accept the costs, but we shouldn’t expect them to like it. Utilities’ approach to marketing and customer service should account for this reality.

Second, it suggests that green has transcended beyond a trend to become a fact of life, yielding fundamental changes in American markets—and politics.

Nuclear Maneuver

Political battles are heating up in the fight over environmental regulation. Since last summer, when the House of Representatives approved the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, the front lines in the green revolution have moved substantially backward. Opponents of GHG regulation chalked up a major victory in December when the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen failed to formulate anything resembling a binding accord. Also, an anti-eco movement coalesced around last year’s “climategate” scandal—in which hackers stole and publicized embarrassing email messages written by scientists at Britain’s University of East Anglia.

At the same time, in early 2010 the Obama Administration found itself significantly weakened after a year of bad economic news and the collapse of Congressional Democrats’ healthcare reform bill. By mid-February, climate legislation in Congress seemed dead for 2010, and the administration seemed unlikely to spend what remained of its political capital issuing controversial GHG constraints based on the EPA’s Clean Air Act “endangerment finding.”

Just as it appeared the green police were being surrounded by anti-eco opponents, however, Energy Secretary Steven Chu launched a flanking maneuver, announcing $3.4 billion in loan guarantees to support Southern Company’s investment in two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle in Georgia.

After the announcement, Southern CEO David Ratcliffe pointed out nuclear energy’s importance for improving America’s energy security and addressing climate change. But not surprisingly, Southern and DOE focused more attention on the thousands of construction jobs the new reactors will create, and their role in revitalizing America’s prowess in nuclear technology.

In effect, Plant Vogtle became the equivalent of Audi’s A3 sedan: expensive, prestigious and green. And by championing it in the midst of an ideological struggle, the administration was playing good cop to the green police’s bad cop. Chu might’ve told Ratcliffe, “Clean nuclear … you’re good to go, sir.”

Editor’s Note

In this issue, readers will notice a new department in Fortnightly—“Vendor Neutral.” This department’s purpose is simple: it provides a snapshot of some of the most interesting technology-related developments happening in the industry.

Looking at this month’s “Vendor Neutral,” one can’t help but notice that it’s heavily dominated by items related to renewables, demand response and other green technologies. Some readers might conclude from this fact that Fortnightly’s editors intentionally excluded announcements related to traditional fossil or nuclear power plants, but we didn’t. Indeed, we used every such announcement that we could find in time for our deadline.

Specifically, this month’s “Vendor Neutral” column includes exactly one item related to coal, and it involves carbon capture and sequestration technology. The utter absence of news about traditional energy technologies is telling us one thing, loud and clear: The industry is laser-focused on green energy, to the virtual exclusion of everything else.

In the months ahead, “Vendor Neutral” will show whether the green-tech trend continues, or whether popular and political backlash translates into new business for less-green technologies.–MTB