The Clean Energy Future Is a Battle for Hearts and Mind

Source: By Jack Ewing reported from the Kansas City area, Clifford Krauss from Wyoming and Lisa Friedman from the Southeast to assess shifting attitudes toward green technology. Photographs by Mason Trinca. New York Times • Posted: Sunday, August 13, 2023

A broad, and sometimes quixotic, retail effort to win the fight against global warming is playing out one person at a time, with nary a mention of climate change.

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?

“I’m 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. “I’d 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.

A man and a woman discussing an electric car.

Alicia Cox, ​​executive director of Yellowstone-Teton Clean Cities, travels Wyoming offering free rides in an electric Chevy Bolt. Continue scrolling

In conversations with activists, policymakers and corporate executives, it becomes clear that a save-the-planet argument doesn’t go very far. Most people won’t 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. That’s perhaps why those pitching the technology often avoid mentioning climate change. They emulate evangelists who don’t lead with Jesus when trying to win over nonbelievers.

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, a recent Pew Research Center survey 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.”

Ms. Cox leaning back against a wooden rail at a log cabin.

“I never expect anyone to adopt an E.V. on the first go of it,” Ms. Cox said.

Selling Green Energy

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.

“That’s not how you sell it,” he said over coffee at his home. “Nobody’s 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. It’s 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. Landreth’s 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. Leach’s cows cool on a July day when the temperature was in the high 90s.

Two men carry a solar panel on a slanting roof.

Jae Landreth’s solar installation business in Baldwin City, Kan., counts Rob Leach, a dairy farmer, among his customers.

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. “I’ve 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.

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 law’s 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.

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. Granholm’s 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. “It’s important to lean on the message that makes sense for people where they are.”

Mr. Landreth, in a dark gray polo shirt, sitting on a stone wall beside tall grass.

Mr. Landreth said he had “learned the hard way” not to mention climate change when marketing solar panels to his neighbors.

Jobs and Savings

In North and South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee — states on Ms. Granholm’s itinerary — solid majorities accept that global warming is real, according to detailed polling by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. 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. Greene’s constituents, said he didn’t “really buy into that stuff” about global warming. But he added, “I don’t have anything against solar, especially if it’s creating jobs.”

A sign against renewable energy in front of a gate to a house.

Experts say most people won’t buy green technology unless it will clearly save them money or dazzle them.

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. Granholm’s 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 wasn’t planning to buy an electric car because they were too expensive.

“I know the corporations love them, but I don’t 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. That’s perhaps why Mr. Biden tends to emphasize the economic upside of his policies.

How Electrifying Everything Became a Key Climate Solution

To tackle climate change, we’ll 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.”

“Didn’t get much help from the other team, but that didn’t 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 can’t deny good-paying jobs,” he said.

Not ‘Mission: Impossible’

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.

It’s a tough sell. During a Friday night “cruise parade” that opened the show, Mr. Lawson’s 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, it’s 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 don’t believe in electric cars,” she said. “The government could turn them off. The government controls our electricity.”

A man repairs an electric charging station.

Patrick Lawson lobbies local businesses to install charging stations, talks to skeptics and demonstrates his Tesla at the car show’s obstacle course.

A few bystanders on the parade route commented favorably about the Tesla’s looks. But there were brickbats, too. “They’re 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 doesn’t deter Mr. Lawson, 42, who manages the tribe’s 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 doesn’t fit everybody’s needs,” said Kent Wheeler, a technician at an auto body and paint shop.

Mr. Lawson remains optimistic. “I’m in it for the long haul,” he said. “It’s 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 don’t want to make cars that only Democrats buy.

One company confronting the marketing problem is Polaris, a Minnesota automaker 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.

Mr. Lawson standing next to a solar panel in a yard.

Mr. Lawson, a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, said, “I just want to change the perception that electric cars are not as good as big, noisy muscle cars.”

“We knew the target customer,” said Josh Hermes, vice president for 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 truck’s 450-mile range and towing capacity.

The company’s chief executive, Mary T. Barra, said the cars were winning people over. Customers are “figuring out they’re really fun to drive, and it’s 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 City’s 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 don’t see this being a flashpoint.”