The Salt River Project recently conducted a survey to gauge customers’ attitudes about both renewable and traditional energy generation. Respondents exhibited highly favorable feelings towardssolar wind and hydro-electric resources, and highly unfavorable feelings toward coal and nuclear resources. There was strong agreement among survey participants that Arizona should start replacing coal with other energy sources. 

The SRP survey asked customers how likely they would be to choose “surcharge” options that would raise their bills to support renewable energy and efficiency initiatives. Currently, the average SRP household pays around $4.50 per month to support such initiatives.

Eighty percent of survey participants support options that would increase the surcharge modestly over the next nine years, resulting in an incremental annual cost of approximately $57 by the year 2020. Beyond that dollar level, support for a renewable energy surcharge tailed off dramatically.

Using the perspective of a 9-year timeframe, let’s examine the rising costs of cell phone and cable TV service.

In 2001, the average annual household expenditure for cell phone service was $210. Nine years later, the number was $936. Cable TV rates increase an average of 6% per year.  Currently, the average annual cable TV bill is around $900. With a 6% annual increase, by 2020 the yearly cost for cable TV will rise to $1608.  Throw in another $600 by 2020 for internet access.  Even if we keep cell phone rates steady, we’re talking north of $3,000 per year for these services by 2020.

The fact that SRP customers overwhelmingly support alternative energy is not at all surprising. But their unwillingness to contribute more than $57 per year by 2020 toward helping achieve a fundamental energy transition -- while forking out increasingly substantial sums for wireless phone connectivity, web access and entertainment --  suggests an entirely different set of priorities.

We seem to live in a Twilight Zone with its own fuzzy logic. Fifty sports channels on my satellite TV? No problem. Facebook on my iPhone? You bet. Build a wind farm? OK, but not where I can see it. Generate more clean energy? Absolutely, but not if I have to pay for it. 

There are compelling reasons to aggressively adopt renewable energy -- and to support a broad set of activities that will lead to increasingly cost-effective renewable energy generation. But our circumstances are colored by a uniquely American culture with a highly diverse base of stakeholders and a predisposition toward consumption. At the national level, we lack the political will to drive the clean energy agenda. America is simply not prepared to declare an energy war. So it is largely up to local jurisdictions and fragmented outreach. The problem is, these efforts are not bearing sufficient fruit.

In the movie Cool Hand Luke, chain-gang warden Strother Martin famously drawls, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”  This failure appears to be a key challenge that is undermining well-intentioned efforts to forge broader public acceptance of America’s clean energy imperative. 

We can reset priorities, and we can create an environment conducive to reshaping our energy economy.  Many other countries have already done so. To be sure, we are making progress, but in order to achieve greater success, we must communicate our clean energy imperative with messages that resonate more strongly with each of our stakeholders.

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Jeff Luth is the president of Luth Communications in Scottsdale, AZ.