What can technology adoption theory tell us about United Conservative Party energy politics?

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Brian Jean, Wildrose leader, left, and Jason Kenney, PCAA leader, announce creation of new United Conservative Party. Photo: www.daveberta.ca

PC members appear to be Early to Late Majority Adopters, Wildrose are Laggards. Can they get along in the United Conservative Party?

The Wildrose Party and PCs agreed Thursday to create a new political organization – the United Conservative Party (UCP) – they hope will bring down the Rachel Notley NDP in 2019. Energy and climate policies will play a big role in the next Alberta election. Calgary Hays MLA Ric McIver provided some insight about the political dynamics likely to be in play in these policy areas.

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Ric McIver,Calgary Hays MLA.

McIver was the interim leader of the PC party until Jason Kenney’s victory in the leadership race on March 18. In his opinion, the UCP will be a “big tent party” extending from the centre of the political spectrum traditionally inhabited by the progressives of the “Progressive Conservative” party to the farther right wing voters (especially in rural and oil industry-dominated small cities and town) who have coalesced around the Wildrose.

“It’s going to be a big tent coalition, there’ll be a variety of opinions, so where we land is something that I flat out can’t answer today,” he said a Friday interview.

As for energy and climate policy, McIver is of the view and that Notley’s attempt to decarbonize the oil and gas sector, and shut down coal in favour of natural gas and renewables, is driven primarily by ideology.

“I think it’s the NDP that’s on the extreme end of this thing. They’re prepared to shut down entire industries prematurely in order to satisfy some dogmatic master that they seem to answer to,” he said.

“I think on the conservative side, we’re much more pragmatic, concerned about the environment but also concerned about people in Alberta making a living, having a good standard of life, having good jobs, having bright futures for their kids and their grandchildren.”

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At the core of McIver’s criticism is his view that the NDP are too far out in front of emerging clean energy technologies like wind, solar, and electric vehicles.

“When the new technology becomes better than the old technology, you won’t have to tell people to adopt it, they just will,” he argues. 

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Technology adoption curve developed by American academic A.E. Rogers.

“I think investing in technology and research and trials of new technologies is fine, even if some of those new technologies fail, because that’s essentially where you’re going to find the answer, is through research. When the new technology becomes better than the current technology the world will adopt it.”

 During our interview, McIver several times referenced A.E. Roger’s technology diffusion model that starts with Innovators – the folks who love their gadgets, will pay a very high price premium over the old technology, and make up about 2.5 per cent of consumers – on the very left side of the bell curve, transitioning to Laggards – often older, conservative, afraid of higher risk and cost – at the far side on the right.

The former Calgary alderman and mayoral candidate gets it that energy technology development and diffusion is a decades-long process that begins with very immature technology, some of which will fail in the marketplace.

Into which adopter category would McIver fall, based on our interview?

He would likely be an Early Majority Adopter.

At the farthest left side of the Early Majority Adopter category, consumers are willing to accept a small to moderate amount of risk and pay a small to moderate price premium compared to the dominant technology.

But the appetite for risk and price premium diminishes as we travel further right on the curve. By the time we reach the far right of the Late Majority Adopter category, consumers are willing to accept almost no risk with new technology and want it to cost much less than existing products.

McIver tells the story of the Ford Escape hybrid he bought four or five years ago to illustrate his personal attitude toward technology adoption.

“For the three to four years I owned that vehicle, I prayed every day that the $8,000 battery wouldn’t fail and I wouldn’t have to replace it,” he said.

“But the fact is that we’ve now got experience with that, got to try it, and I thought I was playing some small role in purchasing one of these vehicles so that the companies producing this technology could have a chance to sell more of them and improve the technology.”

That anecdote fits nicely with an Early Majority Adopter.

Interestingly, McIver sees the Notley NDP as Innovators – happy for the Alberta government to take too much risk (e.g. increasing the percentage of renewable energy to 30% by 2030) and paying too high a price premium (e.g. the $1.4 billion the Alberta government will pay power producers to shut down coal plants early).

“It’s still true that the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones but because technology got better,” he says.

“People want the coal age and the oil and gas age to end. The way to do that is not by banning coal and oil via gas, but rather by encouraging new technologies that will make coal and oil and gas less important in the future.”

Based upon my experience reporting about Alberta energy politics, McIver is pretty much representative of the right-wing of the PC party – which will soon be amalgamated with a Wildrose Party whose energy and climate policies are consistent with Laggard Adopters.

Laggards resist change. Think senior executives who don’t want to learn how to send emails, so they dictate them to their secretaries. Or Grandpa’s attitude toward smartphones.

 Take the attitude toward energy and climate policy of Wildrose critic Drew Barnes:

We believe there is a consensus on the importance to reduce global emissions and Alberta has a role to play, but technological upgrades and efficiency incentives need to be enhanced without carbon taxes or other policies that put Albertans and our industries at an obvious disadvantage. The NDP’s heavy handed carbon tax, emissions cap, and electrical grid meddling on top their other tax hikes are all kicking Alberta families and businesses when they were already hurting from the oil price situation. 

Barnes believes the “Wildrose would improve things immediately simply by being proud advocates, eager to grow our energy sector because we do it right.”

In other words, no risk, no cost. Cheer on the status quo.

Can Laggards co-exist comfortably with Early and Late Majority Adopters in the new United Conservative Party?

“I can say there are people that agree and disagree with me – the PC party is a fairly big tent party. I think we’ve got people that don’t want to make any changes and there’s probably people in our party that agree with shutting down the coal and the oil and gas industry,” he says.

“I respectfully disagree with them, but I’ll acknowledge that they’re entitled to their opinion.”

The United Conservative Party’s ability to resolve that tension over energy and climate policy – which are likely to be prominent issues in 2019 – may go a long way to determining its success at the ballot box.

Posted in: Markham on Energy

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