The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Blaine Collison of the Renewable Thermal Collaborative
"Restoring common sense to communications" often means finding the simplest way to talk about something complex or challenging. Finding a way to make the difficult discernable is the essence of clear, compelling, effective communications. Our new client the Renewable Thermal Collaborative (RTC) fits this narrative well and we’re happy to have Blaine Collison, the Executive Director of the RTC, as this month’s guest for the Common Sense Colloquy.
So, what is renewable thermal? And why should you care about this wonky-sounding energy term? Renewable thermal refers to replacing fossil fuels used for process heating in manufacturing and industry, and for heating and cooling buildings with renewable energy. Replacement options include beneficial electrification (electrification with renewable energy), solar thermal, renewable natural gas, green hydrogen, thermal energy storage, and sustainable biomass. It matters because 13% of the total U.S. emissions of climate change-causing gases are produced by industrial uses of thermal energy. Reducing and eliminating those emissions would make a large contribution to meeting midcentury climate goals.
So renewable thermal is a strategy to help “decarbonize” manufacturing. The RTC is the only global coalition working exclusively to help manufacturers replace fossil fuels with clean renewable thermal solutions. The RTC’s membership includes major global companies like General Motors, Honda, Johnson & Johnson, Kimberly Clark, Mars, Nike, P&G, Unilever and more. The RTC is co-convened by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), David Gardiner and Associates (DGA), and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
As Executive Director, Blaine works with RTC members and solutions providers to address the technology, market, and policy challenges to deploying renewable thermal solutions at scale. It’s an emerging effort that has the potential to be increasingly important as 2050 draws nearer and more work needs to be done more quickly to decarbonize the economy.
Blaine has a thirty-year track record of leadership on clean energy and climate policy, including nearly 18 years with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency where he served as Director of the Green Power Partnership among other roles. Blaine began his career on Capitol Hill and has been with David Gardiner and Associates for four and a half years.
We are enjoying working with Blaine and his colleagues and we consider ourselves fortunate to have the opportunity to help spotlight the vital work of the RTC as a leader in advancing decarbonization across important sectors of the economy.
My thanks to Blaine for sharing his wisdom with us – and you.
Q: What kind of responses do you get from companies when you talk with them about RTC membership? What seems to be the most compelling reason for membership?
A: I get mostly very positive responses. That may mean a company joins right away or it may mean that they’re still scoping the issues and we’ll agree to talk again in a couple months as companies have learned more about the issues. I’ve never heard a company say that they have their thermal decarbonization plan fully formed and financed, and that they’re all set.
Decarbonizing thermal energy is a huge set of interconnected challenges for manufacturers and buildings operators; technologies, economics, operations, policy, etc. Companies join the RTC so that they can work on these common challenges with their peers and with solutions experts.
The companies and institutions joining the RTC all have time-bound public climate and sustainability targets, and they need to address their Scope 1 greenhouse gas emissions to hit those targets. These companies are trying to sort out how to deploy compelling solutions at scale, and the RTC is a terrific information-sharing and connection-making resource.
Q: How do you view the challenge of communicating about your work at a time when so much seemingly common-sense policy and regulation has become politicized? Has your work become harder in the past few years, or have you been able to cut through the clutter with your message?
A: The political piece can be challenging, but it’s worth noticing how many businesses have set ambitious public climate goals over the last 10-20 years. Business isn’t debating climate change and decarbonization: it’s moving forward to deploy solutions. The U.S. renewable electricity market over the last 15-20 years is a fantastic example of business leadership and effective policy: businesses’ demand for more renewable electricity has leveraged and helped drive policy; the Production Tax Credit and the Investment Tax Credit at the federal level and renewable portfolio standards (RPS) in some states. The result has been a dramatic, non-partisan expansion of clean, domestic renewable electricity supply. And we continue to see businesses and policymakers set new, increased targets. It’s an exciting example of what’s possible.
Cutting through the clutter is tough. I’ve lost track of the number of climate newsletters and emails I receive. And I can’t make time to read them all.
At the RTC, we try to make our communications and resources available to our stakeholders when and where they need them. So we publish as much as we can, we hold regular convenings, and we engage with partners who are engaging with our stakeholders.
Q: Your career includes time on Capitol Hill, in the private sector and in the federal government meaning you have a well-rounded set of experiences in advancing public policy. What have you learned about the power of communications from these various roles?
A: “Communications” isn’t just one tool; it’s a fantastic, fully loaded toolbox. Great comms work understands its target audience and the problems that audience is trying to solve.
The point of all the communications work I’ve done around climate and renewables is that I want someone to take action – set a goal, buy renewable electricity, decarbonize their thermal energy, etc. People can get to the take-action step by a wide range of different reasons. And that’s fine. It’s the action that matters.
The Six Americas work by Ed Maibach and his colleagues knocked me out when I first encountered it. The short version is that there’s a significant majority of Americans that believes the climate change is real, it’s a threat, and that the U.S. federal government needs to be a leader in our efforts to deal with it. But that majority is comprised of multiple groups of people who are thinking about the issues differently – very differently in some cases – but still getting to the same shared action-oriented outcome. That’s important.
And from a communications perspective, it underscores how important it is to frame your message in terms your intended audience will understand and value. And that will increase your chances of getting to the actions that matter.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?
A: Focus. Focus your message down to the most important point(s). You don’t have to fit in all the subpoints and nuances all the time. And – by the way – you can’t. So focus.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?
A: Give people a path forward. It’s pretty easy in climate to be overwhelmed by the scale of the problem and maybe by a perception that it’s too late. Both of those discourage action. It’s much more effective to say, ‘yes, it’s a challenge – but here’s a next step. And then there’s a step after that. And then another…’