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This Messaging Guru Is Helping Utilities Clean Up Their Appearance

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 29/03/2016 Kate Sheppard
ATHENA IMAGE © Bloomberg via Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

The U.S. utility industry, beset by stricter pollution regulations and market forces that have made renewable energy more competitive, is seeking to rebrand itself into something more appealing to the public.

The Edison Electric Institute, the trade organization representing investor-owned electric companies, discussed plans at its winter meeting in January to work with a communications consultant who will help utilities upgrade their image. That includes shifting language, for example, from "utility-scale solar" to something friendlier, like "community solar."

"What we are seeing is generally a lot of negative attacks on our industry," Brian Wolff, EEI's executive vice president for public policy and external affairs, said at the meeting. Those attacks, he said, include ads that are "designed to harm our industry" and "create more distance between our companies and customers."

The Huffington Post obtained a full audio recording of the meeting and a transcript from a source who was present.

New environmental regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants are forcing changes at power plants. Meanwhile, solar energy has gotten about 70 percent cheaper since 2009, spurring a rapid expansion. Some utilities have installed their own solar systems. In some cases, utilities have backed attacks on rooftop solar.

Wolff said the industry group had hired New York crisis communications expert Michael Maslansky to help develop a new communication plan that would be presented to members this month. 

Maslansky's firm has helped Toyota weather a massive recall for faulty accelerator pedals and helped Starbucks convince the public its instant coffee was somehow different from others. Maslansky previously worked with Republican messaging guru Frank Luntz, who is credited with getting Republicans to use the term "climate change" instead of "global warming" because it sounds less scary, and for christening President George W. Bush's "Healthy Forests Initiative" (which benefited the timber industry) and "Clear Skies Act" (which actually relaxed air pollution regulations).

Wolff praised the efforts of companies outside the utility industry to relate to customers, pointing to an ExxonMobil ad showing Americans turning on light switches. But it's utilities that provide electricity, Wolff pointed out, not oil companies.

"They're actually using our product to enhance their image," said Wolff. "The conversation here is one that we need to be leading, not other industries."

The utility industry, Wolff told industry leaders, needs to talk about "reputation management." He presented slides on "using the same language, having the same messages." And he noted that those who are speaking for power producers are going to develop a plan for "language to use, language to lose."

"Think of this as a style guide going forward," Wolff said. "We don't want to call this a campaign. I view this as something that we need to do year in, year out... We need to be able to think about something sustained, something repetitious, something ongoing."

Maslansky conducted in-depth interviews and spoke with focus groups about the language the industry should use, Wolff said. The research found that many people had no strong opinions about utilities one way or another. But there were also people who held negative views, he said. "They view us a monopoly, no incentives to serve the customers. They view us as stuck in the past in terms of technology."

Hence the desire to start using terms like "community solar" instead of "utility-scale solar."

This is a particularly hot issue in the world of electricity policy. Across the country, the price of installing solar panels on homes and businesses has declined, thanks to market forces and policies like tax incentives that make it more appealing.

But in some states, utilities have begun pushing back against policies like net metering, which allows homes and businesses with their own solar power systems to sell excess energy back to the power grid. Policy battles over solar have played out in recent years in Arizona, Nevada, Florida and Hawaii, among other places. (A great Rolling Stone article last month outlined the stakes.) 

Utilities argue that net-metering policies aren't fair, since homeowners and businesses with solar panels don't pay their share for transmission lines and infrastructure, and can make a profit selling energy to the grid. The utility companies say they're not anti-solar. In fact, they say, they love their own massive solar installations, usually called "utility-scale" solar.

But advocates for rooftop solar like the idea of someone other than utilities having the opportunity to own solar panels, and the incentives that make that possible. Rooftop solar gives individuals and businesses independence, and expands energy sources beyond utility companies. "Utility-scale" solar is nice, the advocates say, but people and communities should also be producing energy from the sun.

The messaging plan the utility industry is developing seeks to tap into that sentiment by dropping the term "utility-scale solar" in favor of "community solar."

"'Community solar' really resonated with customers... They really wanted something that defined what it meant to be community," Wolff said at the meeting.

"'Utility-scale solar,' owned by the utility, sounds like the utilities are going to be in complete control," he continued. "We say, 'Community solar for all.' Again, there is a way to get around this without trying to get too complicated here. They like the word 'community solar.' It conveys the benefits of what we are talking about here."

"We should proceed with the terminology that is more favorable to us," he said. "And 'community' is clearly more favorable to us,"

One problem, though: "Community solar" is already a term in use to describe something outside the utility industry. It refers to solar projects owned by the public or a joint entity -- panels on a shared housing complex, for example, or an array shared by multiple businesses pooling their funds. There are 91 community solar projects around the country, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Wolff told HuffPost in an interview that Maslansky's work is part of a larger effort to reshape the utility industry's communication with customers, which typically only occurs through monthly bills, or when there's a major storm or outage.

It's "not really a communications plan as much as it is language that our customers can understand," Wolff said.

Wolff noted that utilities are making big investments in solar, installing new solar capacity at record rates. "We're trying to bring our customers along on the journey we're on, which is a journey of transformation," he said.

Wolff said he foresees no problems with using the term "community solar." "Community-scale solar is larger" than simply solar panels, he said. "It's really universal solar is what it is, because you're providing to cities, communities."

Maslansky said the communication project is an effort to help power companies better relate to their customers. "Basically, the industry is more customer focused than ever before," he told HuffPost in an email. "And they want to make sure that customers understand the steps they are taking to prepare for the future. Customer feedback has told them that their language could improve on both fronts."

But solar advocates are suspicious. Bryan Miller, a vice president at the rooftop solar company Sunrun and president of the Alliance for Solar Choice, said he thinks the branding effort reflects utilities' growing concern about rooftop power systems taking a chunk out of their business. He called the co-option of community solar "dishonest politics," given the fight utilities have waged against rooftop solar in some states.

"Instead of renaming their actions, they should change their actions," said Miller. "Then they wouldn’t have to worry about how to skin them."

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