By Robynn Andracsek, P.E., Burns & McDonnell and Contributing Editor
Scott Rasmussen, president of Rasmussen Reports, was the keynote speaker at the September 2011 meeting of the National Coal Transportation Association. He spoke about underlying currents of public opinion and how big changes in national policy happen either as a result of slowly growing public frustration or big, unexpected events. In the subtext of his speech was a lesson for electric utilities responding to the onslaught of new environmental regulations.
There are two main mechanisms for these large changes in history and policy. The first is through slow shifts in the underlying public opinion. The second is through a historical and catalytic event.
An example of the first mechanism is the woman’s suffrage movement. In 1920, Congress gave women the right to vote, but not because they suddenly woke up one morning and decided it would be a good idea. The pressure had been building for 70-plus years. The suffrage movement sought support by attaching itself to the various causes of the day, such as temperance. “We’ll support a ban on alcohol if you support our right to vote.” In 1869, Wyoming became the first state to give women the right to vote, in large part to lure women to move to the state. By 1920, 40 percent of congressmen were from states where women could already vote. It made sense for those elected officials to support national suffrage, lest they lose their reelection.
Examples of the second mechanism are the Stock Market Collapse of 1929, the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rosa Parks, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. These events were turning points in history. Our country and the sentiments of its citizens were fundamentally changed overnight. These watershed moments are unexpected and much more traumatic than slow shifts in public attitudes.
The modern environmental movement has been building during the post-WWII era. 1948 saw passage of the first federal requirements for water quality and deaths in Donora, Penn., from industrial sulfur dioxide emissions. In the interim, national environmental laws, such as the Acid Rain regulations and the removal of lead from gasoline, precipitated cleaner air and water and more responsible management of waste. These laws have directly led to a healthier and safer U.S. population.
However, in recent years the calls for environmental purity have begun to conflict with the infrastructure of modern U.S. civilization, specifically the dependence on cheap and abundant electricity. As can been seen in developing countries, the availability of electricity is directly related to increases in standard of living and longevity and decreases in hunger and infant mortality. Our lifestyles are entrenched in electricity, as can be seen in the chaos of any blackout, whether from weather or grid failure.
Today, the mood in the electric utility world is one of exasperation as we sift through ever-morphing regulations while simultaneously trying to meet conflicting production commitments. A substantial failure of the U.S. power grid is a catalytic event that I fear and that I hope doesn’t happen, since it would inevitably come with tragic effects. However, a lack of diversity in power generation sources and fuels combined with mandated, premature shutdown of baseload coal-fired power plants threaten the stability of the power supply that we now take for granted.
Utilities have taken a step in the right direction by publicizing the link between these new regulations and job loss, a predominant concern in this weak economy. However, it is important to tap into other areas of public dialogue also. We can’t get our message heard on our own. Today one of the key ways of engaging the public is through social media. It’s important to provide daily relevant information, acknowledge mistakes and establish credibility over the long haul. Managing a message this way is more labor-intensive, but this direct contact is also more powerful in changing attitudes, since the American people are more willing than politicians to take on change. Once an idea is at the legislative process stage, you are already behind in trying shape public opinion.
We must continue to preach that environmental protection can coexist with baseload electricity production. While advocating for regulations that make sense, that can withstand court challenge and that allow sufficient time for implementation, we must acknowledge that uncontrolled coal-fired boilers need to retrofitted with SO2 and NO2 controls. This will allow our industry not simply to complain but to provide positive alternatives. Wind and solar energy production should continue to be researched as a way to supplement baseload coal and nuclear energy.
Mr. Rasmussen made a point that by the time you are sick of saying your message, others are just starting to listen. We need to continue to push for a shift in public policy and hope it occurs before a major blackout changes policy for us.
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