How to Talk Biomass to Politicians

Jeremy Kalin from Avisen Legal discusses how to talk about biomass to politicians.
By Jeremy Kalin | April 28, 2021

Almost unbelievably, it has been 18 years since I first jumped headfirst into the deep waters of electoral politics. I’ve run for office three times, served two terms as state representative and chaired a White House clean energy and climate task force. I’ve learned a few things about engaging politicians in everything from geeky energy efficiency policy to tangible solar and biomass projects. A few tidbits of my hard-won knowledge include the following.

Relationships are the currency of politics. Elected officials operate on relationships. Some politicians deserve the cynic view that relationships are only used transactionally, whether for policy wins, reelection endorsements or campaign donations. In my experience, however, nearly every politician is in office to make a difference, and because they enjoy helping people. Most are very receptive to outreach from experts, especially from constituents or someone with a common interest. It’s worthwhile asking to connect over coffee, just to share your experience in biomass, renewable energy, engineering or whatever you think you have to share. Like most relationships, it’s a long-game focus on building connections first; pushing an agenda can come later.

Elected officials are rarely experts themselves. Nearly every level of government faces diverse challenges from operating utilities to maintaining bond ratings and protecting constitutional rights. In most cases, even with full-time staff support, elected officials are playing catch-up to substantive professionals. Most politicians and staff are hungry learners, eager to build their network of subject matter pros. Literally hundreds of thousands of American elected officials are part-timers—for example, 40 states have only part-time legislatures.

No doubt, you are a biomass expert, regardless of your years or decades in the field. Biomass projects require complex system integration from feedstock and transportation to thermal and power issues. On the finance and legal front, we help manage utility agreements, site leases, permitting, tax credits and much more.

Make yourself available as a resource and a sounding board to your local politicians. It could be fun—and fruitful.

Nearly every politician wants to be reelected. The vast majority of politicians want to be reelected. Who wants to lose at any competition, especially one so public?  Incumbents win reelection between 85 and 98% of the time. Reelection typically requires incumbents showing their integrity, value and commitment to public service. In short, they want to look good, because looking good very likely means winning.

As a biomass expert, you can help them look good. If they meet with you and listen, tell your neighbors. If they help make a project happen, tell your neighbors. And if they stand in the way? Well, you probably know what to do, too.

You can’t spell biomass without “win-win.” Okay, that’s not true. But biomass and bioenergy projects are about as “win-win-win” as any solution. Landfill diversion? Check. Reduce loaded miles of waste? Check. Renewable power or low-carbon fuel? Check. Methane capture? Check.

Politicians love solving multiple problems at the same time, and even more so when it comes to economic development projects. Almost everywhere, Democrats and Republicans fall over themselves to show they can work together if it means supporting a project that provides jobs with good wages, while also good for the environment.

Simple terms. Easy words. I’m a lawyer, and I like words. Sometimes, I like big words. And sometimes, only a specific big word can capture an idea. But most of the time, I try to say we are “putting less junk in the air” rather than reducing emissions. “Food waste” or “waste oil from french fries” is easier to understand than “organic feedstock.” And specific images make it easier to understand, especially if you are a part-time county commissioner who just answered three emails from your day job before dashing over to your coffee meeting (or joining your Zoom room, these days).

If you can’t explain an idea to a fourth-grader, it’s probably not simple enough yet.

Always tell the truth. Finally, back to the relationship idea. Good relationships are built on trust. And trust is built on telling the truth.

 You can have impact. By building relationships, telling the truth, keeping biomass simple and helping politicians look good and get smarter, you can make the path to success for your biomass projects and technology much smoother. And maybe, you can somehow help me learn to spell biomass with “win-win.”

Contract: Jeremy Kalin
Impact Counsel, Avisen Legal
[email protected]