How to Talk About Clean Energy Innovation
Investing in innovative clean energy technologies and infrastructure is imperative if we are to address climate change definitively, but recent Third Way polling found that, in the teeth of a pandemic and the second major recession in just over a decade, many Americans are still primarily worried about their jobs and the economy. Policymakers and other leaders seeking to build broad support for climate action should tie their message back to job creation in their communities every single time.
This memo provides some tips on:
- Effective ways to convey to people and communities far beyond the Beltway—particularly those outside of innovation hotbeds like California—how they directly benefit from federal clean energy infrastructure and innovation investments; and
- How to make clean energy innovation compelling and resonant for people who aren’t necessarily climate advocates or working in the sector.
Polling that Third Way conducted with ALG Research found that voters in a selection of congressional districts with close links to conventional energy production and manufacturing industries want the federal government to prioritize jobs and pandemic recovery over taking action on climate change.1 To build broad public support for the clean energy innovation and infrastructure investments that we need to curb climate change, policymakers and advocates should frame clean energy in terms of what these voters are most concerned about: jobs and recovery.
However, vague references to “clean energy innovation” aren’t resonating with this group. Fewer than half of the voters we polled associated the phrase with local job or economic growth.2
Importantly, however, a higher proportion of the voters who do think these investments benefit communities like theirs support a range of federal clean energy investments.3 By focusing on the tangible jobs and economic development that clean energy technology is already spurring in local communities, you can discuss clean energy issues in a way that more effectively motivates people to support these investments.
Make It Relatable While Quelling Cost Concerns
Always tie support for clean energy innovation and climate action to job growth and opportunity in your communities. It’s easy for people to feel skeptical about the worth of federal clean energy investments until they recognize that they and their communities are benefiting directly.
Results from our survey suggest that talking about the significant number of jobs that clean energy innovation already supports is one of the safest messages in districts where conventional energy production and manufacturing take place.4
Whenever possible, cite state- or district-specific case studies, data, and anecdotes instead of national statistics. Explore, or ask the US Department of Energy (DOE) for notifications about, local examples of clean energy spending that has benefited your community. If your office is trying to get a particular bill over the finish line, for example, locate people and companies in your communities who worked on similar projects or have received related awards.
Keep in Touch with the Energy Department: All members of Congress and their offices can email and interface with the Energy Department’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs. Engage directly with DOE by:
- Requesting information on current DOE-supported activity in your community;
- Receiving notifications on recently-finalized awards in a particular district; and
- Obtaining technical assistance on legislative proposals.
Through this type of engagement, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) was quoted in a recent press release from the DOE Advanced Manufacturing Office that announced nearly $25 million in funding opportunities for R&D into domestic manufacturing innovation.
Find Examples of Federally Supported Clean Energy Projects: In just a few minutes’ time, you can locate examples of federal clean energy investments directly benefiting your network. Consider consulting:
- The USAspending.gov database, the government’s clearinghouse for federal awards across all agencies. By filtering on the time period, location (search by congressional district, county, city or zip code of interest under “Place of Performance”), and CFDA Program (a complete list of the codes for DOE and other agency is available to download from the US General Services Administration here), you can find the recipients of federal grants, cooperative agreements, loans, and other awards, with award descriptions and dollar values. Read more about USAspending.gov and caveats about the data in this Congressional Research Service report, updated in December 2020
- The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Award Data website, which lists awards with an SBIR component, often with more data than USASpending.gov provides. Awards can be cross-referenced in the two databases by multiple means, including the contract code and the name of the award
- The DOE Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO)’s list of Industrial Assessment Centers (IACs). Check whether AMO currently supports an IAC at a university in your community. IACs provide local small- and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) with free assessments on how to save energy. The names of the SMMs assisted are not made public except in case studies, but DOE provides data on how many assessments each IAC has conducted and the value of the energy and cost savings it has recommended
To flesh out press releases, speeches, and other communications with additional district or state-level data, consult the following:
- DOE press releases about grants the agency has awarded that mention cities or towns important to you
- The US Energy Information Administration’s State Profiles
- DOE’s regularly updated eGallon tool, which allows for easy comparison of the cost to fuel a vehicle with electricity versus gasoline
- Third Way’s interactive map identifying projects that the government chose to receive a 48C advanced energy manufacturing tax credit in 2009-10 and 2013. These credits helped companies retool or build manufacturing facilities to produce a range of clean energy technologies, and policymakers are currently considering reviving the credit
Over the years, clean energy components manufacturers have benefited from federal energy R&D investments, and the production tax credit (PTC) and investment tax credit (ITC) have supported a range of technologies. Look for these companies and projects in your community, or information about the local and state jobs that these industries support. Resources include:
- The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), which maps operating and under-construction major ground-mounted solar projects in the United States over 1 megawatt (SEIA members have access to a monthly-updated data file). SEIA also provides public state-level data and factsheets about solar employment, investment, and the number of solar companies, using data from the association’s quarterly Solar Market InsightTM report and other offerings. More granular or district-level information may be available for congressional offices from SEIA upon request
- The Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census, whose latest report appendix from 2019 lists the number of solar jobs in each state. The foundation expects to release its 2021 report in the spring
- The American Clean Power Association (ACP)’s state fact sheets on wind, solar, and storage capacity; employment statistics; and other datapoints. Members can also reach out to ACP for assistance regarding its WindIQ database, which includes additional data on wind parts manufacturers
- The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s map and downloadable data plotting US wind manufacturing facilities and wind farms
- Third Way’s interactive map series showing the opportunity for each state to build out clean energy technologies and supportive infrastructure, such as wind, solar, energy storage, nuclear, hydrogen, and carbon capture. State-by-state jobs numbers are coming soon, but policymakers can request information in the meantime by emailing [email protected]
Be Active on Clean Energy Innovation
All of the successful messaging in the world won’t mean much if the people in your network don’t hear it or see you as a leader on these issues. Find and regularly execute on opportunities to highlight your support for clean energy and jobs, and identify people who can help you do it and can create a positive feedback loop.
- Hold roundtables with local leaders, researchers, university staff, or manufacturers about the importance of clean energy innovation to your community
- Tour a local clean energy manufacturing facility, supplier, etc.
- Identify validators who can help amplify your message and achievements by developing relationships with local trade unions, chambers of commerce, agricultural associations, community development organizations, etc.
Don’t let this engagement go unnoticed. When appropriate, issue a press release about these interactions, send a batch of letters about them to people who have previously expressed interest in local economic development,5 and share them with your newsletter network.
In September 2020, Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-CT) issued a press release celebrating the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s award of $3 million to a hydrogen fuel cell developer located in her district. The press release noted that Rep. Hayes championed a $170 million appropriations request for the Fuel Cell Technologies Office that provided the award. The press release was subsequently picked up by a local journalist, who reported on the grant and quoted Rep. Hayes from her press release.
In July 2020, the office of Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX) flagged the benefits of the second Fiscal Year 2021 minibus to her district and highlighted the bill’s inclusion of her amendment to boost funding for research work in the Office of Fossil Energy at DOE in support of Texas energy producers.
In February 2020, Rep. Annie Kuster (D-NH) issued a press release about her clean energy listening tour, highlighting her engagement and conversation with local leaders on the issue, referencing the set of clean energy bills she supports, and linking to a ribbon-cutting ceremony she had recently attended in Nashua when two electric hybrid buses entered into service.
A legislator does not need to have introduced, cosponsored, or amended a bill or previously gone on the record in support of a given program; if they voted for the vehicle containing the authorization or funding for the program, they had a role in its passage and should feel empowered to talk about that role.
Make It Tangible: Talk About Building and Making Physical Things
Clean energy advocates should start talking about clean energy innovation and manufacturing in the same breath. “Clean energy” often conjures up images of renewables, to the exclusion of manufacturing innovations that, with these audiences, may be even more popular.
Today, when voters in key districts hear “clean energy innovation,” our polling shows they primarily think of a few very specific things: renewables in general, or solar and wind in particular. Don't get us wrong: These voters generally support investing in renewables. But an even larger percentage tends to support related investments that they don’t necessarily immediately associate with “clean energy innovation.”
As the chart below shows, clean energy investments that invoke a strong image of support for building and making tangible products garner the most interest among these voters.
Intuitively, more people relate to things like buildings, appliances, powerlines, and manufacturing facilities—objects they might interact with or drive past on a daily basis—as opposed to solar, wind, or nuclear energy projects that they may rarely or never see.
If all you say is "clean energy" or “clean energy innovation,” you're not tapping into the enthusiasm for these specific types of projects and businesses. That’s a missed opportunity for your network to see evidence of clean energy investments benefitting their own communities.
In written and oral communications, specifically call out these popular clean energy categories (e.g. clean energy manufacturing, smart grid technologies, and investments to help our manufacturers reduce waste and make more efficient products). Even better: Look for examples where these innovative hands-on activities or investments are occurring in your community.
Surveys were conducted live by phone—the first from August 20-September 3, 2020, among 1,600 likely voters, and the second from November 16-24, 2020, among 1,600 general election voters. Both surveys were conducted in the following districts: AZ-1; MI-11; NM-1; NM-2; NM-3; PA-17; TX-7; TX-33; and VA-2 (sample sizes per district varied but ranged from 100 respondents in NM-3 to 200 respondents in several of the districts). Sizable majorities of these voters said creating and protecting jobs (74%) and addressing the pandemic (70%) had been a major factor in their vote for Congress in the November 2020 election, while less than half said that combating climate change (42%) and investing in clean energy (44%) significantly factored into their vote.
After the election, a majority (58%) of these voters agreed that clean energy innovation investments are worthwhile and create jobs and economic growth (rather than cost more than they’re worth). But less than half (46%) said these investments create jobs and growth in communities like theirs. Worryingly, that 46% represents a drop of seven points from when we asked this question in September 2020, which may be due to an increase in public pessimism as the pandemic worsened in mid-November.
These voters (let’s call them “the initiated”) support, in higher proportions, investments in carbon capture (91% of the initiated support, vs. 74% of total respondents), smart grid technology (94% of the initiated support, vs. 85% of total respondents) and cleaner appliances (95% of the initiated support, vs. 82% total). Nearly equally high proportions for those who say clean energy investments are generally worthwhile also support these investments.
Job growth message tested (in the pre-election survey): “Our economy is changing, and clean energy innovation already supports twice as many jobs as the old fossil fuel industry. The clean energy industry has been one of the largest and fastest growing job creators in the U.S. over the past ten years and with record unemployment, it is more important than ever that we invest in clean energy innovation to create more jobs.”
Constituent letters should be sent in keeping with House and Senate ethics requirements. See: United States, Congress, House, Committee on Ethics. “The Frank,” https://ethics.house.gov/official-allowances/frank#:~:text=40%20Members%20of%20Congress%20and,%C2%A7%203210%20et%20seq. Accessed 6 April 2021; United States, Congress, Senate, Committee on Ethics. “Franking, Mass Mailing, and Letterhead.” https://www.ethics.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/franking. Accessed 6 April 2021.