The Clean Energy Future Is a Battle for Hearts and Minds
This is the third article in a three-part series examining the , and of the American economy moving toward clean energy. Like many people driving an electric car for the first time, Mikey Marohn had questions: Could he drive hundreds of miles to visit his father without stopping? Where would the chargers be? How did you turn it on? Im anxious, said Mr. Marohn, a 34-year-old carpenter, as he settled behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Bolt near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. But after a test drive with Alicia Cox, executive director of Yellowstone-Teton Clean Cities, a nonprofit group that promotes green transportation, Mr. Marohn had gone from skeptical to curious. I would consider it, he said after Ms. Cox explained that he could save $3,000 a year in fuel costs if he replaced his Chevy Impala with a Bolt. Id like to save money and help the planet. Green energy and transportation have advanced faster than many experts thought possible a few years ago. But many hurdles remain, including efforts by conservative politicians to prolong the use of coal, oil and gas and campaigns by environmentalists and local residents to block new wind turbines, transmission lines and mines. Just as important will be persuading people like Mr. Marohn that electric cars, renewable energy and electric heaters and stoves are practical, economical and exciting. Ms. Cox, who travels Wyoming offering free rides in the Chevy Bolt, is part of a broad, and sometimes quixotic, retail effort to win hearts and minds in the fight against climate change, one person at a time. Biden administration officials are trying to highlight to voters the economic benefits of his energy and industrial policies. Corporations like General Motors, which makes the Bolt, are spending billions of dollars to build electric vehicles they hope to sell everywhere, even in conservative states like Wyoming. In conversations with activists, policymakers and corporate executives, it becomes clear that a save-the-planet argument doesnt go very far. Most people wont buy green technology unless it will clearly save them money and wows them with stunning designs or jaw-dropping performance. Many, conservatives in particular, chafe at the prospect of the government forcing them to buy electric cars or ditch their natural gas appliances, polls show. Thats perhaps why those pitching the technology often avoid mentioning climate change. They emulate evangelists who dont lead with Jesus when trying to win over nonbelievers. How likely U.S. adults say they are to seriously consider purchasing an electric vehicle the next time they buy a car or truck: Not too/Not at all Very/Somewhat 38% U.S. adults 50% 30% 56% Democrat 70% 20% Republican How likely U.S. adults say they are to seriously consider purchasing an electric vehicle the next time they buy a car or truck: Not too/Not at all Very/Somewhat 38% U.S. adults 50% 30% Democrat 56% 70% 20% Republican Source: Note: Percentages do not add up to 100. The rest of the survey respondents said they did not plan to purchase a vehicle. By The New York Times A clean energy future will require painstaking and individually tailored persuasion campaigns. About half of Americans say they are not interested in buying electric cars, and a little more than half say they have not seriously considered solar panels, heat pumps or electric water heaters, found. I never expect anyone to adopt an E.V. on the first go of it, Ms. Cox said. They need someone walking along beside them as they are making the decision. Jae Landreth operates a solar installation business in Baldwin City, Kan., a rural town southwest of Kansas City. Though he believes in climate change, he said, he learned the hard way not to mention it when marketing solar panels to his neighbors. Thats not how you sell it, he said over coffee at his home. Nobodys ever going to make a decision unless it benefits them in a money sense. Mr. Landreth, an ebullient man who plays percussion in a Phil Collins tribute band, owns a Tesla, an electric off-road vehicle and an electric Ford F-150 Lightning pickup he uses for his business, Solar Planet. His enthusiasm for electric vehicles is hardly the norm in this patch of corn-and-cattle country. Its not unusual for drivers of Teslas and Toyota Prius hybrids to get coal-rolled by diesel trucks rigged to produce clouds of black exhaust on demand. One of Mr. Landreths customers is Rob Leach, a dairy farmer. Mr. Leach hired Mr. Landreth to install solar panels on his barn when it was rebuilt after a 2019 tornado. The panels power the large fans that were keeping Mr. Leachs cows cool on a July day when the temperature was in the high 90s. Cost was crucial, according to Mr. Leach. I said, I just want to know at the end of the month, am I going to be paying less even with my investment in solar? And that has been the case. Mr. Leach has since encouraged other farmers to install solar panels. Ive had several friends of mine that were, you know, not necessarily trying to save the planet, he said. They just wanted to save money. The Inflation Reduction Act passed by Democrats last year allocated hundreds of billions of dollars in incentives for wind and solar manufacturing, electric vehicles and other clean energy. New manufacturing investments announced since the Inflation Reduction Act passed in August 2022 Source: and additional research by The New York Times Note: This map only shows projects for which a detailed location has been announced. By The New York Times Although no Republicans voted for the bill, much of the money has gone to G.O.P.-led states in the South where many automakers, battery manufacturers and solar companies are building factories in part to take advantage of the laws tax breaks. Getting credit for the new jobs is a political imperative for President Biden, who will be seeking re-election next year. That helps explains why his energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, spent part of July traversing the Southeast in a caravan of electric vehicles. Location of new clean energy manufacturing investments by 2020 county election results $53.3 billion Trump counties Biden counties $19.1 billion N/A $4.0 billion $53.3 billion Trump Biden $19.1 billion N/A $4.0 billion $53.3 billion Trump counties Biden counties $19.1 billion N/A $4.0 billion Source: Note: The N/A category includes investments for which a detailed location has not yet been announced. By The New York Times Ms. Granholm stopped at universities and elementary schools, a hardware store and a Baptist church. She made the case that federal investment in clean energy is creating thousands of jobs, saving consumers money and even protecting the nation against President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has used fossil fuel exports to exert pressure. Not on Ms. Granholms list of reasons to go green: climate change. Sipping black coffee at a Starbucks outside Memphis. Ms. Granholm said she liked to focus on how Biden administration policies were turning the region into a vibrant manufacturing hub. Its important to lean on the message that makes sense for people where they are. In North and South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee states on Ms. Granholms itinerary solid majorities accept that global warming is real, according to detailed polling by the . But there is widespread skepticism that humans are responsible. The climate has always been changing, said Sue Burns, 59, at a gathering of Pontiac car enthusiasts in Murfreesboro, Tenn. The left is out of control in insisting that burning fossil fuels is causing a planetary crisis, Ms. Burns said. Yet Ms. Burns drives a Prius a far cry from a Pontiac muscle car that runs on an internal combustion engine and an electric motor. She said she had bought the car to save money on gas. Among residents benefiting from the economic boost, attitudes may be softening. Outside Dalton, Ga., Qcells, a maker of solar panels, is planning to expand a manufacturing plant. The factory is in the congressional district represented by Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican who has called fossil fuels amazing and climate change a scam. William Turner, 49, one of Ms. Greenes constituents, said he didnt really buy into that stuff about global warming. But he added, I dont have anything against solar, especially if its creating jobs. The true test of public opinion will come when the promised factories are up and running, said Jason Walsh, the executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a partnership of unions and environmental groups. Political messaging and press announcements" will not convince anyone, Mr. Walsh said. But a paycheck might. In Democratic strongholds, Ms. Granholms clean energy message went down more smoothly. Yet even there, many people said they needed to think with their pocketbooks, not their principles. I care about climate change, said Tia Williams, 29, eating lunch with a friend at the Georgia Institute of Technology before an appearance by Ms. Granholm. But she said she wasnt planning to buy an electric car because they were too expensive. I know the corporations love them, but I dont see much use for them myself, Ms. Williams said of federal incentives designed to make electric vehicles more affordable. Slightly less than half of Democrats say they support phasing out fossil fuels, according to Pew. And just 12 percent of Republicans support doing so. Thats perhaps why Mr. Biden tends to emphasize the economic upside of his policies. To tackle climate change, well need to plug in millions of cars, trucks, home heaters, stoves and factories. In July, Mr. Biden went to South Carolina, where he taunted Republicans who had voted against climate change and infrastructure bills yet were reaping their benefits. Mr. Biden toured Flex, which makes fast chargers for electric cars and is in the district represented by Joe Wilson, a Republican who said the Inflation Reduction Act was to the detriment of American families. Didnt get much help from the other team, but that didnt stop us from getting it done, Mr. Biden told the crowd, speaking of the legislation. Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, a Democrat, said in an interview that Republicans were trying to block or roll back efforts to promote electric trucks and buses, energy efficiency and offshore wind development. But Mr. Cooper predicted that economics would prevail. Even if some of them deny the science of climate change, they cant deny good-paying jobs, he said. In Wyoming, where coal, oil, natural gas and souped-up pickups are cherished, Patrick Lawson is fighting a lonely campaign. A member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, he tries to get local businesses to install charging stations. He takes out his Tesla Model Y and Ford F-150 Lightning as an Uber driver at night, less to make money than to drum up interest in electric vehicles. Once a year he participates in the Rocky Mountain Rebels Car Show in Riverton, which adjoins his reservation. I just want to change the perception that electric cars are not as good as big, noisy muscle cars, Mr. Lawson said. Its a tough sell. During a Friday night cruise parade that opened the show, Mr. Lawsons mother, Susan Lawson, drove a red Tesla Model X, its distinctive wing doors open. As she waited in a lumber store parking lot for the parade to start, a middle-age woman approached. Wow, its a Tesla, beautiful car, said the woman, who identified herself only as Cheryl, a patriot and small business owner. But then her tone shifted. I dont believe in electric cars, she said. The government could turn them off. The government controls our electricity. A few bystanders on the parade route commented favorably about the Teslas looks. But there were brickbats, too. Theyre on their way to Jackson, someone said, referring to the liberal resort town. Good luck getting over the pass in that thing, shouted another. After the Lawsons parked in front of the local Elks lodge, a man pretending to hold a machine gun fired a spray of imaginary bullets at the electric vehicles. That kind of reaction doesnt deter Mr. Lawson, 42, who manages the tribes internet company along with his small charging business, Wild West EV. When Mr. Lawson arranged $174,000 to match a federal grant to install charging stations at the city hall and airport, the Riverton City Council declined the money. The one public charging station in town, outside a sandwich shop, is often blocked by trucks, sometimes deliberately parked horizontally to make charging impossible. During an obstacle race that was part of the car show, another Tesla driver beat all 40 cars. Onlookers were impressed but still skeptical. It doesnt fit everybodys needs, said Kent Wheeler, a technician at an auto body and paint shop. Mr. Lawson remains optimistic. Im in it for the long haul, he said. Its not Mission: Impossible. Ford Motor, G.M. and dozens of other companies are investing hundreds of billions of dollars to refit factories and build new ones to produce electric vehicles. They dont want to make cars that only Democrats buy. One company confronting the marketing problem is Polaris, a Minnesota company that builds four-wheel off-road vehicles used by hunters and farmers. In April, Polaris began selling a $25,000 electric vehicle called the Ranger XP Kinetic. Advertising barely mentions the environment, instead stressing its performance. The strategy seems to have worked. The initial production run sold out two hours after Polaris began taking orders. We knew the target customer, said Josh Hermes, vice president for electric off-road vehicles at Polaris. We really focused in on the benefits of the product One of the first buyers was Paul Rosenzweig, a Georgia resident who is in the wholesale feed business and is skeptical that climate change is caused by mankind. Rather, Mr. Rosenzweig, who hunts deer, rabbit and squirrels in Louisiana, likes how quiet the Polaris is. You see more wildlife with electric than you do with the motor burning, he said. When G.M. begins selling a battery-powered version of its Chevy Silverado pickup this year, it will emphasize the trucks 450-mile range and towing capacity. The companys chief executive, Mary T. Barra, said the cars were winning people over. Customers are figuring out theyre really fun to drive, and its really nice to not have to go to the gas station, she said in an interview. There are tentative signs that conservative opposition is wavering. The Republican-controlled Legislature in Alabama, where Mercedes-Benz makes electric cars and Polaris builds the Kinetic, has allocated $1 million a year for a campaign to encourage residents to buy electric vehicles. We want to make sure we embrace the jobs and economic opportunities that accompany this new generation of vehicles, Kenneth Boswell, director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, said in a statement. Republican lawmakers in Missouri have sought to block Quinton Lucas, Kansas Citys Democratic mayor, from raising the minimum wage, making buildings more energy-efficient and restricting gun ownership. But they have not tried to block Kansas City from buying electric cars and trucks, Mr. Lucas said. Building inspectors and supervisors in the Fire Department drive electric cars. At the city-owned airport, electric tractors deliver baggage, and electric buses shuttle passengers. The technology saves the city thousands of dollars per vehicle in maintenance and fuel costs. They usually notice everything new that we do and often try to pre-empt it, Mr. Lucas said of the Legislature. And so what that tells me is, actually, I dont see this being a flashpoint. Produced By Leo Dominguez, Matt McCann and Nadja Popovich. Edited by Vikas Bajaj and Rory Tolan.