The University of Arkansas’s Applied Sustainability Center bridged a political divide through energy policy workshops for state political candidates
The University of Arkansas’s Applied Sustainability Center (ASC) addressed a knowledge gap through energy policy workshops for state political candidates. In the resulting legislative session, politicians worked across parties to pass progressive energy legislation.
“Research shows that only 12% of Americans can pass a basic energy literacy test . If we expect sensible energy policy, we need energy outreach programs to meet the learning needs of elected officials,” says Michele Halsell, Managing Director of the Applied Sustainability Center (ASC), housed at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. This void led ASC to run four Energy, Jobs & the Economy workshops for Arkansas’s political candidates in July and August 2012.
ASC mailed workshop invitations to candidates running for Arkansas’ 135 seats, and followed up by phone. Thirty-nine candidates participated in the workshops, including 19 who were eventually elected to office. When the legislature was seated in January 2013, 14% of elected representatives were Energy, Jobs & the Economy alumni, spanning both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Workshops offered rich exposure
ASC offered four similarly structured, one-day workshops across the state. Because job creation and spending reductions were major campaign topics, workshops emphasized the correlation between good energy policy, job creation and cost savings. Workshops spent equal time discussing these connections in each of three industries: energy efficiency, renewable energy and alternative fuels.
Workshops exposed participants to the content through three channels:
Presentations by job creators. For each industry, companies of differing sizes, with activities spanning multiple states, discussed how policy affects job creation and cost savings. These industry representatives described how different regional energy policies affected the growth of their businesses.
Research summaries. ASC pulled together leading research on the relationship between energy policy and economic prosperity. For example, a study by the University of Tennessee found Arkansas was among 15 states in the US that would most benefit from biofuel production, potentially creating thousands of new jobs. Workshop organizers incorporated research-based content into speaker introductions and made copies of all cited resources available to participants.
Tours of job training facilities. To help candidates realize that students are seeking jobs in Arkansas’ energy sector, ASC closed each workshop with a tour of the local university’s training facilities. For example, at the workshop in West Memphis participants toured the Marion Berry Biofuels Research Center at Mid-South Community College, where students were learning to distill new fuels from various feedstocks.
Workshop funding was provided by the Arkansas Advanced Energy Foundation and subsidized by a modest $25 registration fee paid by participants.
Workshops directly impacted energy policy
Immediately following the workshop, participants completed a survey on their experience. Participants unanimously agreed that they better understood the implications of energy policy and felt more able to discuss it with energy companies, constituents and fellow legislators.
The ASC’s non-partisan approach to energy education also built a foundation for positive dialogue across party lines. The 19 participants elected to office evenly spanned the two dominant parties – 10 Republicans and 9 Democrats. The resulting legislative session passed five energy policies, including Property Assessed Clean Energy, which enables local municipalities to provide low-interest, transferable loans for energy infrastructure.
“It was remarkable,” says Halsell. “The session began with a great deal of emphasis on dividing issues such as taxes, gun control, gay marriage and abortion. Yet, we had leaders on both sides of the aisle who championed key pieces of energy legislation.”
And there seems to be appetite for more. New candidates are preparing for the 2014 election and have been approaching ASC requesting that workshops be repeated. Halsell says the centre will offer similarly-structured workshops to the incoming cohort of candidates.
Halsell offers advice for creating policy change by educating politicians
Be non-partisan. For policy to be passed, competing parties must be able to find common ground. Explore your topic from multiple angles and ensure the content resonates with the viewpoints of all participants. This will build a platform for constructive conversation in legislative bodies.
Connect your topic to hot political issues. Get your topic on the radar by connecting it to key political issues in your area. In the case of Arkansas, this was job creation.
Combine good research with real experience. Policy makers want to hear from those on the ground – people who are voting and impacted by policy. Leverage relevant industry speakers who can tell compelling stories of their experience. It’s also important that your message is factually grounded, so incorporate the findings of rigorous research.
Visit the Applied Sustainability Center for more information on the Energy, Jobs & the Economy workshops or other activities of the ASC.
 National Environmental Education and Training Foundation NEETF (2002). Americans’ low “energy IQ”: A risk to our energy future. Washington DC.