A Few Thoughts on Fear, Gas Stoves, and Freedom

“Are Your Gas Appliances Killing You?”

That’s the way I began a piece of marketing collateral I wrote, well, back in the waning years of the 20th century. Back then, I worked in marketing for an electric utility, Salt River Project, and we were having our lunch eaten by a natural gas utility, Southwest Gas, in the new-home construction market.

At one time, the metropolitan Phoenix housing market, one of the hottest in the country, routinely installed all electric appliances, including a heat pump, in newly built homes. With total-electric new-home market share in excess of 90%, I suppose we grew fat and happy. When Southwest Gas, a smaller and scrappier gas utility, started making inroads with homebuilders, and new homes started featuring gas appliances, we reached for our checkbook and increased incentives to homebuilders to try to convince them to build all-electric homes.

We soon learned money wasn’t the answer. Our share of total-electric, new-build homes kept falling. Since other tried and true marketing levers — romance, weight loss, beauty, status — weren’t available to us, I tried to pull another lever: fear.

We’ll never know if that would have been successful because my manager nixed the idea. Instead, I was instructed to focus on the superior efficiency of electric appliances like cooktops and water heaters, compared to their gas counterparts.

I snoozed my way through that assignment. A new homeowner myself, I knew no one bought a home because of what appliances it could accommodate. They chose then, as they choose now, on other factors, such as floor plan, location, schools, traffic patterns, proximity to restaurants and retail, etc.

But in the latest illustration of the maxim everything that is old is new again, the news media has seized on new research that use of gas stoves “is associated with an increased risk of asthma among children.” About 35% of U.S. households have a gas stove.

Very quickly, the study rekindled the decades-old “fuel wars” conflict between electric and gas interests, and then became part of the global climate change conversation, and then, inevitably, entered the culture wars arena. “God, guns, and gas stoves” became the rallying cry of some. Funny fuel wars memes quickly took over the internet.

Building Electrification is a Thing. Recognize That.

Let’s all turn down the heat for a moment. Building electrification is real. It began in 2019 in Berkeley, California, and has since spread across cities and states where Democrats are the governing party. RMI, formerly known as the Rocky Mountain Institute, reported that 94 cities and counties “have adopted policies that require or encourage the move off fossil fuels to all-electric homes and buildings.”

At the end of 2022, it said, nearly 31 million people in nine states and the District of Columbia lived where local policies favor fossil fuel-free buildings.

That trend has spawned a counter-trend, where GOP-led states like Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kansas, and Louisiana have countered with “ban the ban” bills, sometimes dubbed “energy choice” laws. These measures prohibit municipalities or counties from enacting measures like modifying building codes that effectively prohibit natural gas appliances.

I expect this fight will continue long after the current controversy dies down. But too much heat and not enough light (puns intended) risks alienating your customers, no matter what service you provide and where you operate.  

Communications Tip of the Month: Building electrification is real. It is so important to show how your utility is working to be part of the solution. De-escalate, inform, and position building electrification as an issue of customer choice.

How One Combination Utility Discussed Building Electrification

In this fractious environment, what should utility communicators do? Here’s one idea: I was able to help one client, City of Palo Alto Utilities (CPAU), which provides customers with electricity as well as gas, step carefully through the building electrification fray in a customer publication, Utilities at a Glance:

“A big part of a decarbonized energy future starts with stakeholder engagement. Talking to customers, business leaders, and energy experts is the first step in planning a long-term transition away from natural gas. Our programs, policies, and education efforts are developed with support and input from our community stakeholders and customers.”

OK, hopefully that got us past the fear that CPAU would be “coming for your gas appliances.” CPAU valued stakeholder engagement and understood that gas appliances, particularly cooktops, were popular. They rightly wanted to assure customers that gas appliances would not be forcibly ripped out of their homes.

But it was also important to recognize the reality that a growing number of municipalities, and even states, are moving to electrify buildings.

So, yes, building electrification is happening, but it’s not going to happen overnight. If you want to talk your customers off the ledge, context and timeline are critical.

Then on to a bit of energy education:

“In decades past, natural gas was the lowest-cost, cleanest option compared to other available heating sources. Nevertheless, natural gas is a fossil fuel that produces carbon dioxide, a common GHG, when burned. In addition, natural gas itself is primarily methane, a GHG more potent than carbon dioxide. Some methane inevitably leaks into the atmosphere when natural gas is produced and transported.”

CPAU held numerous workshops and community meetings to discuss building electrification.

CPAU’s electricity is 100% carbon free, which made the next step easier:

“The expansion of renewable electricity and the deployment of new heat-pump technologies make electric water and space heating a more climate-friendly alternative. When compared to heat pumps powered by Palo Alto’s carbon-neutral electricity, natural gas is no longer the cleaner option. We recognize that support for these new products is increasing across the Bay Area and beyond, and we are committed to helping Palo Altans find more ways to reduce their carbon emissions.”

As a marketing lever, the ability to choose is right up there with romance, weight loss, beauty, money, and status.

So the first challenge is to calmly reassure customers that no one was coming for their gas stoves. Then recognize reality as you educate your customers.

Follow that with giving customers the opportunity to act on their beliefs:

“If you have a gas service at your home or business, you can do your part to reduce your carbon footprint by reducing your gas usage. When your gas appliances reach the end of their lifespan, consider replacing them with efficient electric alternatives. The City offers rebates of up to $1,500 for installing a heat-pump water heater. Since CPAU’s electricity is carbon-neutral, there will be an immediate positive impact on the climate.”

It is so important to show how your utility is working to be part of the solution.

As a general proposition, the residents of Palo Alto, California, may think differently about climate change compared to the citizens of deep-red, fossil-fuel states like Texas, Oklahoma, or Louisiana. So, some local word-smithing may be needed. But “freedom” or “choice” is a powerful marketing lever that resonates pretty much everywhere.

So I’d recommend de-escalating, informing, and positioning building electrification as an issue of customer choice.

Photo Credits: iStock and CPAU


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