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Summary:

Coal giant Peabody turns to a tactic that has long been used to cling to old school technology: the manipulative press release.

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Coal giant Peabody Energy put out a press release this morning that on first glance could be the work of The Yes Men, or a Greenpeace parody campaign. The announcement is titled: “Lights Out At Big Game Offers Compelling Demonstration To Counter Those Who Envision World Without Coal,” and the one-pager describes the Super Bowl blackout as something Americans should get used to in an era of reduced coal use for electricity.

That’s about the most disingenuous and manipulative piece of advertising I’ve seen in years (about as bad as its Coal Can Do That site). While power grid and utility execs are still looking into what caused the blackout at the Superdome, there are much more likely causes of the blackout than a reduction of coal use including faulty grid architecture (feeder line from an external substation), issues with Superdome power architecture, or even the highly speculative discussions of grid hacking that were ample on Twitter during the blackouts. (Note, Peabody isn’t actually saying the blackout was caused but a reduction of coal use, but just weirdly slaps the two together).

The use of coal for electricity in the U.S. has been reducing and will continue to reduce. Natural gas for electricity is the new hotness — it’s cheap, provides power 24/7, and is cleaner than coal — and wind power was actually the largest source of new generation in the U.S. in 2012. That wind stat was a record, by the way. Of course, having a massive coal business, Peabody doesn’t like this shift in energy generation, so it creates advertising campaigns that look to promote coal.

It’s a sad approach, really. I would say this to Peabody: you can’t turn around a fundamental shift in energy technology by these types of PR methods. The only thing that will shore up the loss of the coal business is investment in new energy technologies.

Yes, you claim to be doing so with “clean coal” technologies, but clean coal tech at this point is far less commercially viable than natural gas, wind, solar and energy efficiency technologies. If you look at the winners and losers throughout the history of the business world, the same type of technology shifts have led to changes like brick and mortar booksellers and video rental companies going out of business in the face of their online counterparts (Borders, Barnes and Nobles, Blockbuster), or telecom companies going under by not embracing wireless technology and the Internet.

No one would argue that coal provides one of the cheapest and most reliable forms of energy. But the environmental ramifications — both greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and dangerous work conditions — of coal are also well known. Coal is a non-renewable source and many of the coal plants in the U.S. are using very old technology. Natural gas is cleaner and also, like coal, can be used around the clock (wind and solar only provide power at certain times of day). And now with its low cost, it’s not surprising that utilities are turning to it now in droves. (Though, yes natural gas is non-renewable also).

As clean power — truly emissions free — becomes more mainstream, it’ll take over more of that new generation, too. Peabody, please join the modern technology age.

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  1. I find your depiction of the press release to be more deceptive than the press release. There’s no indication at all in the press release that the use of less coal caused the blackout.

    1. End of Paragraph #2:

      “(Note, Peabody isn’t actually saying the blackout was caused but a reduction of coal use, but just weirdly slaps the two together).”

      Though, I think she means “by” and not “but”

  2. Good points Katie… But Barnes & Noble is still alive and kicking (even jabbing Amazon with the Nook)

  3. Great reporting, Katie. This is truly trying to capitalize on the buzz around the blackout (hey, capitalizing on buzz is nothing new) but making it an argument for coal and a negatie message is a bit disconcerting.

    New technology used to support dying technology? Yes, the irony is there. Oreo cookies did an excellent job of making a positive statement and having some fun in the process. Remarkably, they did it in 4 minutes from the time the blackout happened. They didn’t make a Ray Lewis joke, either.

    http://successfulworkplace.com/2013/02/03/oreo-and-a-super-bowl-blackout-show-the-power-of-speed-marketing/

    It made me want to eat an Oreo. Peabody makes me want to picket a coal-fired power plant…

  4. The Peabody press release is an interesting contrast to this piece in the NY Times about the incredibly bad air pollution in Beijing being caused by cars and coal.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/31/world/asia/beijing-takes-emergency-steps-to-fight-smog.html?_r=0

  5. Natural gas is the future of energy. It is replacing dirty old coal plants, and dangerous expensive nuclear plants. It will fuel cars, trucks, vans, buses, locomotives, aircraft, ships, tractors, engines of all kinds. It costs far less. It will help keep us out of more useless wars, where we shed our blood and money. It is used to make many products. It lowers CO2 emissions, and pollution. Over 4,600 select natural gas story links on my free blog. An annotated and illustrated bibliography of live links, updated daily. The worldwide picture of natural gas. Read in 67 nations. ronwagnersrants . blogspot . com

  6. Ms. Fehrenbacher claims the press release (note that it IS a “press release” and NOT an advertisement) is disengenous.

    Then she implies it blamed the blackout on reduced coal usage (when she says, “there are much more likely causes of the blackout than a reduction of coal use”), then finally she admits the press release makes no such claim, as Mr. Frasier astutely points out. So which is it, were they being disengenuous or was it Katie? She admits they did no such thing then rants about the evils of coal nonetheless. It’s perfectly fine to rant about the evils of coal, and it’s also perfectly fine to push your own point of view in a press release that by the way, NO ONE is obliged to publish.

    But to call Peabody disengenuous for doing something you admit they didn’t actually do sounds, well . . a bit “disengenuous”.

  7. Why is GigaOm allowing ads to be posted in the comments section?

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