State of the Union, Lincoln, and communicating clean energy

February 13, 2013

Watching President Obama’s State of the Union Address last night on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, Steven Spielberg’s recent movie was fresh in my mind (I finally got to the theater to see Lincoln this past weekend).

With the speech on TV, smart phone handy, and laptop open to monitor Twitter and check out new online gadgets for the SOTU like Bing Pulse, I smiled recalling the climactic House vote scene in Lincoln where communications moved literally at the speed of a man running handwritten notes down Pennsylvania Avenue. How times have changed.

And then in other ways, not. Among timeless aspects from Lincoln on display last night: oratory, attention to message, and passion and emotion in political leadership as Mr. Obama discussed gun violence.

On energy, President Obama was more straightforward than passionate. In tackling climate change and job growth, he stressed natural gas, wind, and solar: the need to “speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.” Coal was not mentioned. Indeed, last night’s speech came on the heels of quite a couple of weeks of energy headlines:

  • News of the lowest-price utility scale solar power to date in the U.S., under 6 cents a kilowatt-hour, from a project in New Mexico.
  • Rolling Stone declaring “Big Coal’s Big Problems: The economic prospects of domestic coal-fired power are bleak and getting bleaker.”
  • A coal industry CEO talking about being “totally eliminated by 2035.”
  • And a new Colorado College poll of western state voters finding wind and solar the top choices for most when it comes to energy sources they most want to encourage (in Arizona, for example, 74% of voters chose solar vs. 6% for coal).

So is that it, then, has a new energy era arrived? I thought again of Lincoln. The movie focuses on the weeks leading to the House vote on the 13th Amendment, but it makes reference to some of the long advocacy and public education efforts by abolitionists in prior decades. And after seeing the movie with my middle school-age kids, we took some time afterwards to also talk about what wasn’t shown: the many, many decades of civil rights struggle to follow.

On energy transition, there has certainly been intensive public education work in recent years. To what effect? Here’s some insight from a news content analysis study we conducted last year of hundreds of randomly selected print articles from local and national media outlets from 2011-2012 on the subject of coal-fired power and the possibility of plant retirements or transition:

  • Most notably, coverage almost didn’t occur without mention of coal plant pollution ¾ it was omnipresent. Information or quotes about pollution from coal plants appeared in an overwhelming 82 percent of all articles.
  • While such attention to pollution might be expected in news driven by environmental regulation, it was also salient in coverage pegged to other news as well, including energy industry trends, utility decisions and regulatory proceedings, and activities organized by community and environmental organizations.
  • Impacts on public health, the old age of many coal plants, and clean energy as a path forward followed closely on the heels of pollution as frequent points appearing in coverage, both in overall story content and via quotes from interviews.

So in the year prior to last November’s elections, Superstorm Sandy, and the president’s inaugural and SOTU speeches, information about pollution from aging coal plants — together with clean energy alternatives — was being repeated across the media landscape.

What will the public education efforts of those working for America’s energy transition emphasize going forward? Concern for water? (Information about water use in coal-fired power generation was scarcely present in the media coverage we analyzed). Concern for reducing big sources of carbon pollution? For communities’ health? For wise investments given limited resources and ever-shifting energy costs?

Is there a narrative it will all amount to? Thinking of the handwritten communications in Lincoln as I blog this morning, perhaps it’s pretty simple: times have changed.

Jeff Cappella

Homepage photo courtesy FocustheNation on Flickr. Photo above, courtesy Sierra Club.