How We Got Lost on the Green Energy Highway
How We Got Lost on the Green Energy Highway

Without a roadmap, roads or even a clear need to travel, how can we get alternative energy back on track?

Woke up, fell out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup
And looking up I noticed I was late
Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Made my way upstairs and had a smoke
And everybody spoke, and I went into a dream
         The Beatles, A Day in the Life (1967)

Every single day, most of us wake up in an air conditioned room, we brew coffee on a machine, we use a bathroom, we scroll through our phones for news, we turn on the sink to brush our teeth, we shower, squeezing shampoo out of a manufactured bottle that likely traveled thousands of miles by boat, plane, train or truck before it landed on a store shelf in a well-lit store as if by magic. We grab clothes from an automatic dryer... and the beat goes on.

For most of us, it has been this easy our entire lives. Maybe we didn’t have cell phones all that time, or WiFi, and maybe our coffee makers didn’t always work on timers, but we’ve never had to grow and roast our own beans and manually draw coffee from them with water from the well. We’ve never had to walk or bike or ride a horse 20 miles to work. And we really cannot comprehend the discomfort that would occur if suddenly all the toilets in the world ceased to flush. Hell, we can hardly tolerate it when we drop our iPhones in the pool and have to wait a few hours to get a new one.

So when we build a narrative around green energy that is based on the fear of something that most of us cannot possibly ken – the consequences of climate change – well, we’re all likely to “go into a dream” and scroll right by it. Sure, we like companies that invest in that “green” stamp, and we faithfully roll out our overflowing recycling bins every other week, but we can’t really wrap our heads around a true, wholesale shift in what keeps the world as we know it running. And it really shows.

According to this article by Vox which breaks down the Renewables Global Status Report, carbon emissions are up 1.7%, subsidies to fossil fuels are up 11%, and investment in renewable resources is down:

This is all bad news. The public seems to have the impression that while things are bad, they are finally accelerating toward something better. It’s not true. Collectively, we haven’t even succeeded in reversing direction yet.

Let that sink in.

Just like with any other product-based industry, public interest and support for renewables will ultimately be the driving force behind the money getting where it needs to go. That means getting someone, a single person, on board between their morning shower and coffee. So maybe we should consider some motivators that are a little more digestible than The End of the World As We Know It.

Maybe something more like beer badges. Stay with me.



The Trouble with Green Energy Marketing

We rarely stop to consider how many complex infrastructures are in place to power our lives: power grids, telephone lines, plumbing systems, highway systems, railroads, fueling stations, cell towers, to name a few. Someone had to think those up. Someone had to start building them so that everyone else could grow up using them and eventually get to where we are today.

But imagine you are trying to convince Congress to help you build a highway system but you don’t yet know which material you can viably use to build them, how to store that material (whatever it might be) when you transport it, where to build the roads, how long they will last, or whether people will just start taking trains tomorrow rendering the substantial investment in highways worthless. This is where green energy is right now.

With wind and solar power, we have consistency issues (the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine), we have storage problems (we don’t know how to counter the consistency issues because we can’t yet viably store solar and wind power at the level we would need to), we have transport issues (we need thousands of miles of transmission lines put in place), and we have market issues (renewable energy prices fluctuate to a great degree, making investors wary).

Hydrogen is difficult to handle as a fuel and has not yet been tested with wide use.

With nuclear we have meltdowns. And though 20% of America’s power is still coming from it, may plants are facing early retirement.

And beyond all of this we have issues with existing infrastructures on almost every level: we generally use combustible energy for our homes, our transportation and our industries. Our entire morning routine is literally at stake.

That said, generally speaking, people want to “go green.” According to Forbes:

Increasingly, businesses around the world are responding to a global imperative and consumer demand to go green. And more than 80% of people respect companies and brands that adopt eco-friendly practices.

The audience (us) is already motivated to get on board with anything green, but to make it “green fuel,” not recycling, not energy reduction, not any of the other, easier ways for businesses to “pull the green card,” the messaging has to get more specific, more personal, about something that is insanely complicated, technical and impersonal.

Moving Away From Doomsday

Despite all the issues outlined above, science, government and industry are trying to forge ahead with solutions to renewable energy problems. A thermal battery is in the works that might allow solar energy collection overnight, the UK has a fleet of solar and wind powered cars that could also work as battery packs, India is using AI to record and predict wind patterns, Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) have been pushed globally to offset energy market fluctuations, governments offer tax breaks to both businesses and homeowners using renewable energy and some states in the U.S. pay people for the solar energy they collect.

But at the end of the day, the media keeps telling us that we’re losing the race against time despite all these best efforts. According to Bloomberg:

The world needs explosive growth in renewable energy for the next three decades, but even that probably won’t be enough to forestall catastrophic climate change.

That’s the conclusion of study commissioned by First Light Fusion Ltd., the British start-up that’s building a machine to mimic the power that makes stars shine. With greenhouse gases accumulating at record rates in the atmosphere, researchers at SystemIQ wrote that entirely new zero-carbon technologies will be needed to avert the rising seas, superstorms and famines predicted by runaway global warming.

Rather than scaring us into action as it probably is intended to do, news like this has started to make us feel hopeless. We’re investing less in renewable energy as we know it because it feels like a loser. What we want is a silver bullet. An easy way out. A “solution” as easy as using a “smart” thermostat or throwing a can in the recycling bin.

But so far, we don’t have that silver bullet, and many larger-scale initiatives have failed. In an interview with Russell Gold about his book Superpower: One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy, Gold talks about the last big attempt to create the “Hoover Dam” of wind energy:

We have decades of law and decades of bureaucracy built up to get pipelines in the ground. This is the power of incumbency. Natural gas developers built the whole mechanism around building these lines.

And then, here comes somebody like [Michael] Skelly, coming along and saying, ‘Let’s try something different,’ and we don’t have the pathways. It’s a really simple bureaucratic story of not knowing what office to go into.

And this is why we need to shift our gaze away from the “whole elephant” of renewable energy and focus on smaller bites that will fit in our mouths. Because if audiences really do lose interest in green fuel initiatives altogether, there will be no incentives, and The End of the World As... you’ve heard this one before.



How We’ll Make the Bus on Time

In the same interview cited above from the Texas Observer, Russell Gold alludes to the problem with “selling” people on energy initiatives:

Energy is a complicated topic — most people don’t want to think about it. You want to be able to flip your light switch and the lights come on, and that’s fine. I do think it’s important that people understand that there are trade-offs.

No offense to Gold, but that may not be entirely true. Not the part about people not wanting to think about energy. But most of us really don’t need to know about the specific trade-offs or details. There are simply too many fronts to follow in this battle.

What is important is shifting the conversation to something more optimistic (or at least hopeful), and doing that really has nothing to do with wind turbines or batteries or subsidies or trade-offs. It has everything to do with keeping audiences engaged and the money flowin’ with green energy initiatives so they keep funding or voting to fund or just supporting the brains that work on those bigger problems. Some ideas in that vein:

  • Beer badges. Obviously not literally for beer. But the gamification of green energy should prove just as rewarding, if not as intoxicating. According to studies, our brains respond positively, and we are more likely to repeat actions within apps and games when there is a “level up” or “badge” at stake. Imagine if you could track even a contrived reflection of how much your renewable energy usage positively affected the world. Imagine if businesses earned “badges” for their green energy initiatives specifically and you could see how they “ranked.”
  • Energy trackers. Some apps have been developed along these lines, but they are not widely used and most of the ones that exist are largely perfunctory, partly because the meters themselves are not developed with apps in mind. But that aside, getting a digital meter reading on your phone is great. But what if you could see how your solar panels were doing? How much they were saving you? Got reminders to clean them? Encouragement on rainy days? Tips? And perhaps how Fitbit uses goals, progress and, yes, badges to incentivize our interest in our health, the same could be applied to help customers feel like their renewable energy usage has an end game.
  • Money makers. Many of us vaguely know that in some states, power companies will pay us for solar power. Businesses know they will get tax breaks. But are there other ways we could have a vested interest in renewable energy? Something smaller-scale and accessible the way that Seed Invest has made start-ups more accessible? The idea is not necessarily to fund entire projects this way, but to give people a reason to follow the projects’ progress.
  • Local initiatives. Cities account for 2/3 of global energy demand. Local pride is big right now. The need for jobs is always big. Some communities have entirely rallied behind green energy initiatives and found success. There are many ways to piggyback green energy goals onto local goals, and the topic is more immediately relatable than Saving the World.
  • Influencers who will tell better stories. Right now when you say “energy influencers,” you probably mean one of these guys because the only story to tell is the one about science, government and The Apocalypse. Sure, a few people are hashtagging clean energy here and there, but how much can Annie Sue Portman from New Hamlet, Pennsylvania really say about her solar panels? See ideas 1-4 above. If Annie Sue has apps to review, goals to track, investments to make, local events to attend, suddenly she has more to talk about. She will probably even get to know some of the science and share articles with her friends.

The bottom line is, we have to create ways for people to feel as though their actions are making a difference. The decentralized, discombobulated nature of the renewable energy problem isn’t actually a problem in terms of whether solutions can be found for battery storage or transmission lines, of course those problems can be solved. The real issue is keeping people and businesses interested enough to invest their time and money in the solutions. They don’t have to solve all the world’s problems. They just have to care enough to grab their coats and hats and run out the door.

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