Cable’s Role in Energy Independence

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Suppose the cable industry had an opportunity to:

  • Create goodwill in the communities it serves;
  • Help its customers make ends meet in tough times;
  • Spur economic development and job growth;
  • Build good relationships with the new administration and congress;
  • Strengthen America’s national security;
  • And, for good measure, help save the planet.

Sound too good to be true? And even if it is, what’s it going to cost? Well, the main “cost” is not money, but tapping a resource that will be less in-demand in 2009: local and national ad avails.

The 2008 political campaign and holiday shopping season will be over, and the economy will be in the doldrums. Even with the need to use airtime for marketing its own products and to run public-service announcements for worthy causes it supports, a soft ad-sales market will allow cable to use its inventory of avails to take advantage of this opportunity.

So then, just what is it? Simply stated, for cable to conduct a major public-service campaign to promote the adoption of renewable energy sources by homeowners, the people who comprise most of cable’s customers, and those of its competitors. By doing so, cable can achieve those six goals itemized above. But before going into more detail on what I’m proposing, a little history.

In the 1970s, as a result of the Arab oil embargo, the nation faced its first energy crisis. At times, people couldn’t buy gas for their cars at any price. President Ford and especially President Carter, with bipartisan congressional support, sought to wean the U.S. from its dependence on foreign oil. A national goal was set to derive 20% of our energy supply from renewables by the year 2000.

Several initiatives were launched to promote residential adoption of alternate energy sources and to foster the growth of an industry to provide products and services to make that possible. Tax credits for the purchase of renewable systems were passed. And four regional centers around the country were funded to act as catalysts for commercializing alternate-energy technologies.

I was manager of government and public affairs for the Northeast Solar Energy Center in Boston. We worked with state and local governments, business and labor, and academia and nonprofit organizations to provide consumers with information and run workshops to help them “go solar.” We conducted an extensive public relations effort to get the word out to the public through the media, garnering press coverage by working with political figures like House Speaker “Tip” O’Neill and conducting a solar demo at the 1980 Winter Olympics.

We were succeeding. Then President Reagan took office and, in pursuing his free-market philosophy, severely curtailed government intervention to achieve energy independence. For the next quarter-century, our energy problem was back-burnered in Washington and forgotten on Main Street. That is until soaring gasoline prices and the inconvenient truth of global warming brought it front and center again — just when the virtue of an unfettered free market has been tarnished.

President-elect Obama has made energy independence and renewables the focus of his energy policy, and the creation of 5 million “green collar” jobs the centerpiece of his economic redevelopment plan. As part of its $700 billion banking-system bailout legislation, Congress extended and expanded tax credits for residential and commercial renewable energy installations.

So the pieces are now in place to renew the renewables effort. But our dependence on imported oil has become so great that we can’t afford to sit idly by waiting for individual homeowners to adopt renewables one by one. We must catalyze the market, and that’s where the cable industry can play an important role by:

  • Airing PSAs to increase awareness of the benefits of renewables and availability of the credits;
  • Producing how-to videos available for viewing on demand;
  • Promoting workshops presented by third-parties in the private and public sectors;
  • Using its broadband pipe to enable networking among users, would-be users and providers of alternate energy systems

Conducting such a campaign will win friends for cable, in its backyard and in Washington, by serving its customers, communities, the country and the planet. It’s not too good to be true, if we make it so.

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