08/03/2005 08:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Clean Energy: It’s Not the Environment, Stupid!

If you could pay an extra five or ten bucks a month to help reduce global warming, childhood asthma, rolling brownouts, the national debt, and the threats of Al-Qaeda, would you bother? I’m guessing you’d think that a no-brainer.

So, why aren’t you buying clean energy?

The question has been befuddling everyone from environmental activists to utility executives. Nearly every American, it seems, understands that generating electricity from the sun, the wind, the earth's heat, or gases generated by rotting waste is good news for everyone -- the planet, people’s health, national security, and the economy.

So, what’s the problem? They just don’t think clean energy works.

That’s the finding of a remarkable nonprofit campaign that stands the best chance I’ve seen of changing Americans’ minds about the virtues and value of clean energy and, in the process, accelerating their market uptake.

The goal of Connecticut-based SmartPower is to have 20% of U.S. energy supply come from clean, renewable sources by 2010. To do that, the organization has engaged in a market research and advertising campaign of Madison Avenue proportions.

Armed with nearly $2 million in pooled funding from five foundations, SmartPower partnered with the Clean Energy States Alliance three years ago to better understand public attitudes about clean energy. That’s no mean feat. For the past half-dozen years or so, a succession of opinion polls have consistently demonstrated American’s desire for cleaner fuel sources (here's one recent example), but the gap with actual clean-energy purchases has remained gargantuan.

Working with Gardner Nelson & Partners, a New York ad agency that represents Southwest Airlines, Chase, and other blue-chip clients, SmartPower conducted focus groups and other research around the U.S. For starters, “We wanted to know what people really think about coal and oil,” SmartPower’s president, Brian Keane, told me recently. “We, like a lot of other people, start with the notion that coal and oil are bad.”

That's not how most others see fossil fuels, as Keane's group learned from an “obituary exercise” they conduced. Explains Keane: “If you want to know what someone thinks about something, take it away from them." So, even before the focus groups actually met, while the participants were still in the waiting room, they were told "Fossil fuels have died. Write the obituary."

What resulted was an eye-opener, to say the least. Wrote one:

It is with great sadness and regret that we announce the demise of fossil fuel. After hundreds of years of supplying the population of earth, the resource had been depleted. It will be remembered for the warmth, comfort and pleasure it provided to living things. There will be a great void that needs to be filled perhaps through wind and solar power. It will be sorely missed by all beings that depended on it to warm them, supply their transportation, power their equipment and support all the resources necessary for a safe and comfortable life. (Emphasis added.)

Wrote another:

Fossil Fuel died after a long, slow illness called greed. Fossil has left the family of the Middle Eastern nations and former President George W. Bush and his cabinet members. Currently, the world is adjusting from heating by oil and illuminating by electricity to solar and wind mill sources. There are several kinks to be worked out and roadblocks to conquer. Will we ever be warm again? Miss you fossil fuel.

“In obituary after obituary, what kept coming through was that fossil fuel has kept this country warm and strong and that there was nothing to take it’s place,” says Keane. “And that solar and wind were not ready for prime time. They said that fossil fuels were a necessary evil.”

It wasn’t all bad news. Every single respondent knew exactly what clean energy is, and they absolutely want it to work. They could discuss it confidently, without hesitation. Many had heard of fuel cells. They believed it would be a better world if we developed more clean energy. They believed it would be better for their health and their environment.

But the misconceptions or misinformation turned out to be rampant. The researchers found that while most people understood clean energy’s benefits, they thought it would require them to have windmills on their houses, or that the power would go on and off on cloudy or windless days, or that it was ultimately all about trade-offs, like using less heat or air conditioning.

“No one’s talking about it on television,” was another comment Keane recalls hearing. “They could actually live with the fact that no one in their neighborhood has a solar panel. But if they saw it was on TV, they could understand it’s potential. TV is the great validator of the day.”

Keane’s group tested a series of messages, reflecting patriotism, security, jobs, and other themes. The one that overwhelmingly migrated to the top was the one that featured an image of the skyline of Chicago. The caption:

“America already produces enough clean energy to supply all of Chicago’s power requirements. Not to mention New York, L.A., Boston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Diego, Dallas, and San Antonio, too. Let’s make more.”

That did the trick. People responded, “I had no idea. Is that true?" If clean energy “already” makes enough to power big cities like Chicago, with all the lights and technology they require, then it must be a lot closer than people think. We should be doing more of that!

Keane's group realized they had hit a nerve. People don’t really understand or appreciate that clean energy is here, and that it works.

The result was a series of slick and powerful print ads and billboards, along with TV and radio spots featuring strong, authoritative voices. You can view them yourself on the SmartPower Web site.

In the end, it turned out that everything we “experts” thought we knew about clean energy was wrong. According to SmartPower:

All survey research indicates virtually every American agrees the environment is important. In the past, clean energy advertising has leaned on the environment. It hasn’t been effective – but not because people think it’s not important. The problem? It’s old news, and no longer very motivating. The environmental story is already well understood. It will take a new message to break through.

So, it’s not the environment, stupid. Says Keane: “We talked to a lot of environmental groups and learned that pushing this as an environmental issue is not even winning over the environmentalists. They know clean energy is good to the core. They just don’t think it works.”

Keane & Co. have validated their findings through a campaign called SmartPower 20% by 2010, which they launched in Connecticut. The campaign challenges cities and towns, faith communities, educational institutions and businesses to start choosing clean energy -- up to 20% by the end of the decade.

The campaign’s tone, like nearly everything else SmartPower is doing, makes perfect sense. By asking participants to gradually ramp up their use to a reasonable level over a reasonable period of time, they’re acknowledging the realities of long-term budgeting and gradual but steady organizational change. Along the way, local clean-energy suppliers can ramp up gradually, too, creating the sustained, orderly market growth that will allow them to survive and thrive over the long term.

So far, 15 cities and towns have made the pledge, and another 50 are lining up, says Keane. So have more than 4,000 residences that signed up in the campaign’s first four months. “In the world of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, 4,000 is a joke," says Keane. "But in the clean-energy world, that’s phenomenal.” And the campaign is now rolling beyond Connecticut, to Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New Mexico -- and the biggest prize of all, California.

It’s a promising start, and a rare success story in the green marketplace. And it helps explain all those surveys showing that Americans overwhelmingly want environmentally responsible goods and services, but never seem to buy them.

It turns out, they just don’t think they work.