Thank you cards at a knife fight

I’ve read about dozen articles or posts about how clean energy is going to be just fine under the Trump administration. Several smack of a thinly veiled desperation, like they’ve run out of gas at 2am after getting lost on a pitch-dark spooky country road in the middle of nowhere with no cell service, telling themselves, “This is going to be fine, just fine. No problem.”

But, there are many good points being made about why we may be fine, just fine. Two are especially clear:

First is what I learned the hard way when I went to work early in the Obama administration to advance clean energy: in the USA, the States have the real control over electricity and natural gas. This is, I believe, why we still have such an outdated system. No one is looking at the big picture, because there is no big picture. The Independent Systems Operators (ISOs, the non-profit organizations that balance the grid in their region) aren’t looking much beyond their own footprint; state utility commissions know they can only control their own state. And, even though federal tax credits make a huge difference in how much the market wants to invest in renewables, at the end of the day, clean energy is built one project at a time, by one developer at a time, almost always for a specific customer who really wants it (yes, even if it’s to fulfill a state mandate, that still counts as wanting it). 

Second, the economics are with us. When you’re talking about new market entrants, wind and solar win. When you look at projections on natural gas prices, fuel-free renewables win. When you look at distributed energy resources’ ability to supply not only power but also deferral of transmission and distribution investments, DER wins. I think often renewables are lazy about making this point, because for the last eight years, we didn’t always have to. From now on, we have to be disciplined and exact in our cost arguments.  We can’t rely on nuanced, feel-good talk about how we’re going to save the earth. We have to show that anyone who rejects us is making a bad financial decision.

Which brings me to the best thing I read this week. A brief column a friend sent from the Globe and Mail (no, I haven’t switched to reading only the Canadian papers yet). It says that when we take the high road when arguing with people who aren’t listening, “it’s like bringing thank you cards to a knife fight.” That stings, because I know I’ve been guilty of that. And it’s an epidemic among clean energy folks. We’re nice. We want to save the earth. How about planning a terrific Earth Day?

While I am the last person you’ll ever meet to disavow thank you notes, I’m done bringing them to knife fights.

Here’s our new reality: we must stick to simple, bold claims. That’s how President-Elect Donald Trump thinks, how he speaks, and I argue, what he capable of listening to. It makes intellectuals’ skin crawl.

We hear someone say, “I’m the best!”

And we’re all like, “Where’s the data showing you’re the best? Who has written a report? What bodies have convened to study if you are the best? What awards have you won? I read in the New York Times that you are not actually the best! I am therefore certain that no one would possibly believe you are the best.”

If Tuesday’s election didn’t convince you that half of America is in no mood for this, I don’t know what will. And that half? They’re in charge.

Are we going to take four years off from building clean energy and the smart grid? No way. But to make it happen in Trumpworld, we need to take a page from his playbook.

“Clean Energy is the best.”

And finally, also as per the President-Elect, we have to stop apologizing for the support we get. No matter how you feel personally about Trump’s legal ability to write off an $18 million loss, we need to understand the thinking in Trumpworld.

“Yes, clean energy gets tax breaks. We get the best tax breaks. Are you jealous of our tax breaks? We’re just following the law. You’re in favor of raising taxes? I’ll be sure to let everybody know you’re in favor of raising taxes.”

I’ll always take the high road with people who are capable of listening. But sometimes you need to meet people where they are. And leave the thank you cards at home.