Cross-posted from The Great Energy Challenge blog

Over the past few months, I’ve made the case that dirty energy lobby plays a full contact game against clean energy, using lobbying and disinformation as business weapons to drive the idea that clean energy is “expensive, unreliable and not ready.” Cleantech, I’ve said, needs to step up its advocacy game dramatically, including driving an honest debate about who is really “expensive.”

At the WINDPOWER International trade show this week, I spoke on a panel that fielded a number of questions about how to do that. It’s hard to find a better place to start than by highlighting the clinic put on by Kate Gordon of the Center for American Progress at a recent “debate” that was hosted by the fossil energy-funded front group, the Cato Institute.

Gordon faced off against a rising star in the dirty energy experts-for-rent stable, Andrew Morris, whose disinformation platform is the Koch-funded (and Koch-founded) “Mercatus Center.”

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Gordon faced Morris on his home turf, a forum completely stacked against her and the clean energy side. Cato named the debate, “The false promise of green energy,” (I’m not making this up) and it was moderated by anti-cleantech Cato Institute “Senior Fellow” Jerry Taylor (typical quote: “if wind energy were a sensible economic investment, it would not need the lavish federal and state subsidies already in place”).

There’s got to be an operations manual used by fossil fuel front groups to do this sort of thing: function like a propaganda machine while sporting a neutral-souding name. Position yourself as intellectually honest people who just happen to come down on the side of the dirty energy interests that fund you. Invite clean energy advocate who can be counted on to bring a bunch of numbers, armload of facts and a strong belief in intellectual honesty and a reasonableness. Frame the conversation against clean energy advocate, put in well-trained mouthpiece, and rout clean energy advocate. Claim victory and spread around the proof point.

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Except, it was Gordon who did the routing, putting on a clinic of not just how to stand up to dirty energy “experts,” but that you have to stand up to them in the first place.

Morris didn’t lose this debate because he proved to be some drooling idiot. He lost it because Gordon didn’t follow the dirty energy playbook by being fact-driven, tentative, strictly responsive, and trying to stay “above the fray.” Instead she framed a compelling vision, then smartly and effectively took Morris into the deep waters of government handouts to highly profitable fossil fuel corporations. Watching the video, you can see pretty quickly that Morris can’t swim in those waters with the anchor of reality around his neck because Gordon had placed it there. She didn’t rely on the idea that facts speak for themselves, because they rarely do. If they did, we’d already be on a clean energy footing in this country and Rex Tillerson would be applying for a summer internship at Planet Forward about now. 

The “debate” started predictably, with Morris (of course) going first and laying out the familiar, disciplined propaganda lines against clean energy:

It needs “massive” federal subsidies; imposes large unfunded mandates on state and local governments; and drives policies that will “radically transform our economy.”

If cleantech innovation energy were so great, it wouldn’t need government spending money and issuing a lot of rules to force people to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do.

What green energy proponents are actually proposing is to borrow money from our children and our grandchildren, then to take that money and turn it over to politically well-connected corporations like GE and ADM.

Wind and solar energy someday might provide significant energy, but they don’t now because they are expensive compared to alternatives, which is why they need subsidies, and they require unacceptable infringements on the rights of others.

We need to get government out of the business of picking winners and losers, because government always makes the wrong decisions when it comes to energy.

I don’t need to bore you with the rest, but you get the idea.

Gordon listened patiently, then used her turn to meet the cost argument head on, on her own terms. She did that by laying out the positive vision that is a key cleantech’s strength:

Clean energy advocates see the opportunity for a larger economic transformation, leading towards a more efficient system in which energy costs actually end up lower than they currently are with fossil fuels.

But she then continued to drive an honest conversation about cost by rebutting Morris’s nonsense with these points:

Energy efficiency and clean energy are less expensive than fossil fuels, because dirty energy costs include pollution externalities, long-term impact on climate disruption.

The costs of fossil fuel externalities are real and they are enormous, on the order of $200-$500 billion a year in the United States due to dirty energy’s health impacts on air and water quality alone. If internalized, health costs alone would have coal costing 37 cents per KWh, compared to 5-11 cents per KWh for wind.

It is not now, and has not been for decades (if ever, a “level playing field” for green energy. To the contrary, fossil fuels are artificially cheap, the result of having been heavily subsidized for more than century. At the same time, there’s been no consistent policy or commitment to clean energy technologies.

You knew Morris had been bested because he faltered, then reverted back to his original lines. Despite the media training he has almost certainly gotten by dirty energy interests, there were no practiced responses, no new things to say.

But Gordon stop to admire her work. She continued to press her frame, by further presented the positive, compelling, exciting vision for the future energy economy that cleantech offers the country. That vision includes a more stable and more diversified energy system, part of a stronger and more equitable economy that doesn’t have “the poorest Americans … stuck with the dirtiest air and water.”  In addition, Gordon pointed out that clean energy will be a multi-trillion-dollar market by 2020, whether America plays or not. The investment dollars can come or stay here, or they can go to China.

Here’s what I think it is valuable to the people I met at WINDPOWER. Ms. Gordon is a clean energy advocate from a non-profit platform. Her message, what she can say and her entire job focus are appreciably different than that of chief marketing officer or corporate communications vice president at a cleantech company. But the takeaway for private-sector, cleantech communicators is that the cost argument will be used against us unless we proactively and aggressively make it honest – both through a positive vision
and not giving an inch in rebuttal. Most of all, Ms. Gordon showed up to do that (though I would have wanted a fairer setting for her), instead of ignoring the challenge or hoping dirty energy propaganda would go away. She didn’t wish it into irrelevance. She decisively defeated it.

Bravo, Kate Gordon.