Recession hit America hard. The housing crisis, banking collapse and automotive industry meltdown led the charge.
Rising energy prices added to the pain.
Pundits and various economists have predicted recovery, but few of those who have lost their jobs, homes or self respect have seen it.
Despite the gloomy mood, even somebody who's been sucker punched by a layoff appreciates a little levity, especially in a TV commercial. The right advertising campaign in a down economy could position a concept for broad public acceptance. Many businesses got their start that way, starting a whole new idea. The list includes MTV, FedEx and Microsoft. And Apple launched its iPod in 2001 just a month after 9/11.
The visual power of coal
Americaspower.org, a pro-coal group in Alexandria, Va., produced a commercial running currently on network television that makes a strong connection. It speaks to the downtrodden and forgotten by flashing from images of a business man, professional woman, graduate, blue collar worker and a couple others. Each is shown sprawled on the canvas as the narrator says, "Our economy. Our work force. We've all taken some big hit."
Who can argue with that?
The narrator continues: "But this is America." The footage cuts between the workers all staggering up, looking determined and beating the count.
"Jobs in America. Together we will power the next big comeback."
The medium is the message
The crowd is initially silent, then with scattered cries of "Get up!" members of the audience stand and cheer as the workers prepare to fight.
"Clean coal. That's America's power."
Not exactly what climate-watching scientists say, but it's a great message. Coal. Good old hot-burning, full-of-energy coal just happened to get it right. The jury remains out, but the campaign registers significant chutzpah.
A lesson for clean energy
Clean energy ought to do something similar. Make it simple and to the point, following the format established by America's Power.
Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a commercial of a person in a space suit wandered an empty radioactive city. The message was Cold War era danger. It still haunts me.
Imagery is powerful. Coal has deep pockets, and America's Power is unapologetic and aggressive in its push for the public eye. Right there on the site's home page, it says coal is green power.
They got it half right. Power, yes. Green? Not so much.
Coal extracts momentum
Coal's coming off a big legal win. U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton issued a decision against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, saying it overstepped its authority regulating mining companies.
Essentially the EPA teamed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers "to coordinate reviews of backlogged permit applications for waste disposal at Appalachia mountaintop mining operations that raise serious environmental concerns," wrote John Raby on huffingtonpost.com.
He quotes U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., as saying, "This is a significant step in our efforts to rein in the EPA."
Clean coal wins support
The coal industry wants to make sure it remains in the game. Coal has a lot going for it. The fuel is domestic and cheap and it fuels about half the nation's energy needs. Yet, questions about its clean future remain despite industry efforts to scrub emissions and contain CO2.
Clean coal has believers. The U.S. Department of Energy is kicking in $450 million from its Clean Coal Power Initiative to help build a 400 megawatt plant in Texas "that combines an integrated gasification combined-cycle system with urea production and carbon capture and storage technology," according to power-eng.com.
For at least the time being, there's room for multiple energy sources. But clean and renewable energy has to elevate its visibility. Government subsidies would help, but they may not last and could be used as leverage by opponents.
Getting a leg up
The argument against subsidizing clean energy by the fossil fuel lobby is somewhat disingenuous. For instance, coal has had them too, according to a recent study.
Coal has received tax breaks totalling $1.3 billion over the past decade from a capital gain treatment on royalties, says the study "What Would Jefferson Do?" by Nancy Pfund of San Francisco-based venture capital firm DBL Investors and Ben Healey.
The study underlines how energy doesn't develop in a vacuum. Clean energy is dropping in price. Combined with energy efficiency and smart grid technology, much of it is making economic sense.
And that's the message. The fight's not begun.