Amid ongoing renewable energy policy battles, the U.S. utility industry has enlisted a crisis communications consultant to rebrand the sector’s image into something more positive, according to The Huffington Post.
The Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the trade group representing investor-owned power companies, revealed at a January board meeting that it had hired New York-based strategist Michael Maslansky to help improve the industry’s public perception.
“What we are seeing is generally a lot of negative attacks on our industry,” said Brian Wolff, EEI’s executive vice president for public policy and external affairs, according to an audio recording obtained by The Huffington Post. These attacks include public relations campaigns “designed to harm our industry” and “create more distance between our companies and customers,” Wolff said.
Maslansky’s role is to help the utility industry create a new communication plan that would be presented to EEI members this month.
As The Huffington Post reports:
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.”
As part of the rebranding, EEI wants to switch from using the term “utility-scale solar” for the friendlier term “community solar.” Community solar is currently used to describe projects that are jointly owned by and provide financial benefits to a specific group of customers. There are currently 91 community solar projects in the U.S., according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Still, EEI sees it as a more favorable term to describe utility-owned projects that serve large groups of customers.
"You can't just rename the DMV and suddenly make people like it,” said Bryan Miller, senior vice president of public policy and power markets at Sunrun and president of The Alliance for Solar Choice.
Jeff Ostermayer, spokesperson for EEI, said the language changes are intended to enhance how utilities service their customers.
“Our industry is working to deliver an energy future that is smarter, cleaner and stronger,” he wrote in an email. “We want to ensure that customers understand the investments we are making and the work we are doing to benefit them. That means communicating in language that is customer-friendly.”
News of the utility rebranding strategy comes as net energy metering and other policies to support distributed solar are being being fiercely debated in several states around the country. Utilities argue that net metering allows solar customers to avoid paying their fair share for use of the electric grid. Solar advocates say distributed solar offers a net benefit by avoiding pollution from conventional power plants, and reducing utility investments in transmission and distribution infrastructure, among other factors.
Tensions over net metering have mounted as solar prices have dropped and the number of installations has dramatically increased. At the same time, many utilities are seeking to change their rates to improve cost recovery, which generally has a negative impact on distributed solar customers. Some utilities are trying to find ways to innovate around solar and other new technologies.