In 2021, you may think that the clean energy transition is well underway.
Renewable energy is the fastest-growing energy source in the United States. Thirty-eight states have implemented renewable energy standards. The Biden administration is taking federal action to scale the country’s clean energy resources, including the recently announced goal for solar power to produce half of US electricity by 2050.
Most importantly, there is widespread support for the clean energy transition: Polling shows that most Americans are in favor of transitioning to 100% clean energy by 2035, regardless of if they live in a blue or red state.
So why do the headlines tell a different story? Policymakers and industry advocates have successfully codified ambitious clean energy mandates, yet an examination of the most shared clean energy news shows that the public conversation is sharply divided, and largely informed by partisan politics and flat-out misinformation compounded by social media. Public communication is essential to advancing public policy—and the current conversation surrounding renewable energy tells us there is still work to be done.
Digital consumer intelligence platform BrandWatch shows there have been more than 1.4 million mentions of clean energy online in the US since January 2019. Moments where the clean energy conversation volume was highest—meaning articles were shared at the highest rate—were primarily driven by political news and extreme weather.
The most significant spike in the clean energy conversation, with more than twice the amount of online posts than any other moment over the past two years, occurred during the Texas energy crisis. This spike resulted in a staggering 98,989 posts in a single week—and misinformation about renewables and their role in the crisis dominated the narrative. Headlines with the highest level of engagement included: “Tucker Carlson: The Texas Green Energy Disaster Is Coming to You Next,” “Texas Outages Put Reliability Of Renewable Energy In The Spotlight,” and “Greg Abbott Blames Texas Power Outages on Green Energy but State Depends on Gas.”
Social media worsened the spread of Texas energy crisis misinformation. Online activist group Avaaz analyzed a sample of high-performing, false narratives on Facebook during President Biden’s first 60 days in office. They found that misinformation related to renewable energy and climate change resulted in an estimated 25 million views across Facebook. Three posts from Fox News promoting the false claim that frozen wind turbines were responsible for the Texas energy crisis made up 31 percent of those estimated views, representing more than 7.5 million views.
The clean energy industry faces two clear problems: For decades, the fossil fuel industry has used lobbying, litigation and strategic communication tactics to weaken policies favorable to renewables. The Texas energy crisis shows us that these efforts remain a key threat to the advancement of American clean energy. At the same time, there is a clear gap in positive narratives about the energy transition. Stories about job creation, manufacturing opportunities, and public health and cost-savings benefits should be at the forefront of the conversation. Instead, political news and misinformation dominate the public discourse.
Despite these challenges, there is an opportunity to take advantage of burgeoning support for renewables. Now is the time for the clean energy industry to meet the moment by initiating proactive, data-driven public education campaigns that will combat misinformation spread and reinforce positive sentiment toward the energy transition.
Already, there are existing insights that a proactive public education can build upon. Research shows that while Democrats support renewable energy as a solution for climate change, Republicans support renewables for economic reasons such as job creation, lower energy costs, and increasing America’s energy independence. Going forward, regular public research can be used to inform messaging nuances and address rapidly changing perceptions among the public, particularly as new policies take hold. Findings should be shared liberally among all industry stakeholders, including companies, trade associations, advocacy groups and policymakers themselves to align messaging.
Current events can also be leveraged for proactive communication. Just as extreme weather events fuel misinformation, they can also drive increased interest in renewables. For example, data shows that interest in solar energy and home battery storage spikes significantly following extreme weather events and grid outages. Industry communication teams should leverage these increasingly frequent events to build on existing interest in affordable, distributed energy, and counteract anticipated misinformation spread through crisis scenario planning.
The U.S. has set a record for renewable deployment in the last year, with major climate and clean energy policy wins at our back. But without stronger public education on these policies, the clean energy industry risks jeopardizing this monumental progress. By leveraging real-world impacts, data-driven messaging, and more aggressive, proactive public education, we can successfully mitigate these risks, reinforce support for the clean energy transition and successfully build the buy-in necessary to advance ambitious climate and energy policy.
Rachel Roseneck is a Clean Energy Leadership Institute Fellow and Associate Director at Kivvit.