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The importance of flawed heroes: Why utilities and media aren’t telling the whole story of the energy transition

Utilities are notoriously bad at telling their own stories.

I make this statement — overgeneralized as it is — based on my experience writing about energy for more than a decade, as a reporter for a daily newspaper in California and, for the past four and half years, as communications manager at the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA). I have seen — and written about — the energy industry from both sides of the line separating journalism and public relations, and understand the difficulties and frustrations reporters and communications professionals may encounter working with utilities.

K Kaufmann, following the energy story on a rooftop in 2015.

But, the impact of the problem goes far beyond how it may affect public perceptions of any one utility. It is at least part of the reason why the energy transition currently underway in the United States and around the world remains one of the least understood and most under-reported stories of our time.

The problem is not one-sided. Utilities confront news media — print, broadcast and online — that thrive on straightforward, adversarial narratives that can be reduced to sound bites, good guys and bad guys, and the impact of any story on individual electric bills. Further, in today’s 24-7, Twitter-driven news cycles, few outlets have the resources to do the in-depth reporting and storytelling that could make what is happening in the energy sector accessible and engaging — something people really care about.

Why is this important?

People learn from stories. The most effective journalism — the kind most likely to truly inform and influence people — weaves together the intricacies of a situation or issue, with a sense of the human beings whose lives have been changed by the actions they have or have not taken in response.

One of the best stories I worked on while at SEPA was an oral history of the “global settlement” in Colorado in 2016, in which a utility and more than two dozen stakeholders tackled a set of issues related to the growth of the solar market in the state. We were able to capture the voices, insights and utter determination of some of the executives and advocates who spent weeks in a conference room, learning how to listen to each other, and making the trade-offs necessary for compromise.

The point here is that the secret of engaging narrative — beyond a riveting plot — is to have characters audiences care about and identify with. And of all character types, the one audiences are most likely to care about and identify with is the flawed hero — the individual who must wrestle with internal obstacles and imperfections, while confronting external challenges that seem insurmountable.

By this definition, utilities are the ultimate flawed heroes, their most fatal flaw being their inability or refusal to admit they are, in fact, internally flawed and struggling. This attempt at image control has resulted in public narratives in which utilities are often portrayed as obstacles to innovation, and consumers rarely see themselves as active participants in the process of change.

Untold stories

Finding ways to change this narrative can and should be an integral part of the bigger story of the energy transition, which is, in fact, historic and incredibly compelling. The collaborative process now driving change in the industry is particularly intriguing. That is, the most effective steps forward are those that involve and benefit all stakeholders — utilities and regulators, technology providers and customers, executives and advocates.

To date, some of these efforts have been more successful than others — Colorado being a prime example. However, even the failures can be of value for what we can learn from them, provided, of course, these lessons are shared.

In such stories, all stakeholders are, to some extent, flawed heroes — organizations with vested interests that limit or skew their perspectives. Investor-owned utilities, in particular, feel they must keep tight control of their public image in the name of legal liability and shareholder profits. Even getting them to discuss their successes — and the obstacles they may have encountered and overcome along the way — can be difficult.

Some of the most powerful stories I have heard during my time at SEPA are the ones that remain untold. Our advisory services team works daily with utilities grappling with the technical and operational challenges of modernizing their systems so they can integrate increasing amounts of renewable energy and other distributed resources. But, these projects are often done under confidential contracts, and even when successfully completed, the utility involved may want to keep its story under wraps rather than show any vulnerability.

At the same time, editors and reporters are rarely interested in covering the nitty-gritty process of change itself. Case in point, the District of Columbia recently passed a new mandate for the nation’s capital to run on 100-percent clean energy by 2032 — a story that has been widely covered in the energy industry and mainstream local media.

SEPA is currently working with the D.C. Public Service Commission, facilitating a series of working groups to hammer out the details of grid modernization that will make reaching this target possible. Our efforts to drum up some coverage for these sessions — which are open to the public — have thus far been unsuccessful.

Imperfect organizations

I recently spent an afternoon at a working group meeting focused on the nuts and bolts of deploying microgrids in the city. Yes, some of the issues discussed were esoteric; for example, whether paying microgrid owners for energy and other services they might provide to the grid would conflict with D.C.’s retail choice rules, which allow residents to choose their electricity provider.

But the lack of coverage means most people don’t understand that hitting a target of 100-percent clean energy means more than a city, state or country putting piles of solar and wind on the grid. Among other things, it means that at some point, you will need one or more groups of policy and technical wonks sitting around tables, drilling into the fine, but essential details of how you actually make it happen.

Many of these people will have incredibly compelling stories to tell about why they are there, stories that many readers might identify with and care about.

The narrative of the energy transition is not simple or static; it doesn’t have good guys and bad guys. Rather it is a story of imperfect organizations aware of the need to change and trying to stay ahead of technological innovation, shifting customer demographics and the need to maintain a healthy bottom line — all with varying degrees of success.

For utilities, media and other stakeholders, telling this story in all its complexity is vital for accelerating our transition to a carbon-free energy system. Traditional approaches to corporate communications and media coverage will not get us there.

We may not know where it will take us or how it will turn out, but we must tell the story. We must tell it with passion and commitment, and we must tell it all.

 

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