Positive energy will boost solar messaging

While fear definitely sells headlines, fear headlines in the world of climate do not make change happen.

As I write this, I am looking at the headlines. At the top of the list is overnight basketball sensation Jeremy Lin. In fact, one headline notes that President Obama has even watched some highlight footage of the new starting point guard of the New York Knicks.

A few weeks ago, who could have predicted it would be the hottest news story? No one.

What can be anticipated in the headlines is the drumbeat of regular stories: Iran and a nuclear missile crisis, the Dow being up or down, the home foreclosure crisis, deforestation of rainforests, melting icecaps, and so on.

News is the epitome of Chicken Little announcing, "The sky is falling." Fear sells papers. The half-told fear story for the news teaser causes us to "tune in at 11." As a PR pro, you likely write press releases about what can go wrong - not right - to hook reporters.

While fear definitely sells headlines, fear headlines in the world of climate do not make change happen. So, what has motivated us to change and address our climate issues? It is not fear, but profit.

I saw this firsthand in the solar industry. As the price of a kilowatt-hour of electricity rose, the price of solar in many markets suddenly made economic sense without incentives. With solar at home being at a price equal to electricity from a utility, it still took one more innovation - a new business model called the power purchase agreement. That enabled users to purchase solar-generated electricity as they consumed it, no money down.

In doing so, there was no up-front capital cost of building a solar plant. The solar service provider built the plant. Suddenly, retailers such as Kohl's, Whole Foods, Staples, and Walmart agreed to have solar panels on their rooftops to manage erratic energy costs because the solar costs were predictable over the agreement's 20-year life.

And by the way, it is better for the environment. No toxic emissions. No carbon. And it creates jobs. Today there are 100,000-plus solar jobs in the US, growing at a rate of another roughly 24,000 jobs in 2012.

For the news to be effective in turning off carbon and turning on businesses with carbon solutions, the headlines must change from negative to positive. Those front-page headlines touting the environmental Armageddon must turn into deals that drive the new economy.

The question is deployment of resources - and in the instance of PR, deployment of message. We need the messages that divert the communications and marketing efforts away from the "negotiation" and toward the entrepreneurs who are coming up with clever new approaches to deploy solutions at scale.

For example, the Carbon War Room put an Energy Star label on 60,000 ships globally so that ship charterers and others could discern clean ships from dirty ones and save their slice of $50 billion in wasted bunker fuel. We unlocked a new financial mechanism for energy efficiency called PACE in Miami and Sacramento, CA, to the tune of $650 million from Barclays Capital.

There is a new company, BrightFarms, engaging in long-term produce purchase agreements with grocers who buy locally grown fresh tomatoes and lettuce in their store trading areas. It finances, builds, and operates - with local farmers - hydroponic greenhouses and grows the fresh produce for the stores in their local market. It eliminates many pesticides, fuel costs of long-haul trucking of food, and more. And the grocer pays the same prices for the tomato that was trucked 3,000 miles. These BrightFarms tomatoes and heads of lettuce are shipped just a few blocks or miles.

These are the kinds of stories and business solutions we must uncover. We need young people excited about doing something with their smartphones, laptops, and free time. We need messages that get the government to partner with businesses to deploy existing technologies rotting on the shelf.

At the Carbon War Room we have noted, "The emissions reductions necessary to meet 2020 requirements can be achieved profitably - by existing technologies, under existing policy. This is an opportunity masked as a crisis - arguably the largest wealth-creation opportunity of our lifetime."

Like Jeremy Lin, we might surprise the world with new economic models that are an overnight sensation - for the next 50 years. And, those will be headlines to bank on. 

Jigar Shah is CEO of the Carbon War Room, an independent nonprofit that brings entrepreneurs together to address climate issues.

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