In getting people to make clean energy choices, shouldn’t we be making the message more positive, even visceral?
NOT THAT I am old enough to remember, but in 1961, my birth town in Yorkshire had the largest electric road-based transit system in the country — an attractive fleet of 132 sky blue trolleybuses, drawing power from overhead wiring whilst riding on conventional rubber tyres, purring around the streets without noise or fumes.
It was not because of environmentalist causes. The urban air of 1961 might have been smoggy with soot and cigarette smoke, but the seas were not clogged up with plastic bottles and discarded condoms, paper cups were a rare modern Americanism, airports were never busy, and no one imagined the globe might warm up. A different heat kept people awake at night: the nuclear arms race between the superpowers. This, not the climate, made for demonstrations in London, documentaries on television, and Etonian-accented safety warnings from the Government. At the UN, Kennedy and Khrushchev were shouting about Cuba, and in that year’s blockbuster film — The Day the Earth Caught Fire — the eponymous event came not from CO2 or Tesco bags but as a result of H-bomb testing.
But then, at the end of that year, the Bradford council devised a plan to replace all the lovely electric buses with dirty diesel ones. Fuel was getting cheaper and oil felt in keeping with the Swinging 60s. Another factor was civil defence: it was argued at council chambers that, during a nuclear strike, trolleybus wires would short-out and only diesel vehicles could be trusted in an evacuation role (even if it was a somewhat fanciful idea that a few motorbuses could get the population of 290,000 citizens up to the top of Ilkley Moor in the time between the 3-minute warning and a 50 megaton Soviet airburst).
It seems ironic then that eccentric nuclear paranoia helped kill something with application years ahead of its time. But the more interesting feature of this story concerns the protestations made by the people of Bradford to a very unpopular decision. In pre-environmental era 1961, the argument in favour of electric buses was that they were clean, quiet, comfortable — and powerful.
Bradford is a very hilly city. A trolleybus could be at the top of a long hill long before a diesel omnibus had got out of its clanking, choking, lowest gear. Trolleybuses had the power. On tap. On demand. On the touch of a pedal. And — when it’s in their favour, working for them, making life more comfortable and effort-free — people like power. It has an emotional pull. Fast-forward to now and it’s a point that can be lost when it comes to today’s clean energy communications.
The UK government has pledged to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emission by 2050. However, it may be that 2020 is the year to watch for ever more clean energy innovations turning mainstream: smart-metering, domestic solar, intelligent office lighting, insulation technology, advanced house building design, efficient light-bulbs, etc. But especially in automotive.
The electric vehicle is set to become the viable and normalised option: the UK infrastructure is reaching critical mass, with over 13,000 public charging points, whilst vehicle range stats are now into the hundreds of miles. Automotive sales have been suffering from confused consumer paralysis, but the pent-up demand in the system is a boom waiting to happen. VW, Ford, JLR, and Toyota have all more or less claimed that every range model will have an electric variant by 2030 or sooner. In one week alone recently, VW took 15,000 pre-orders in Europe for their forthcoming ID.3. BMW have highlighted the moment: Oliver Zipse, head of production says, “We are entering an era in which electric cars will become a normal choice for our customer,” whilst Mini UK director David George speaks of 2020 being “the tipping point for those who have been thinking about choosing an electric car.”
The general concept of plugging in rather than filling up is approaching intelligibility and acceptability to consumers, making credibility greater — Tesla having paved the way. Now, at last, we are witnessing the kind of visceral attraction towards EVs that once only applied to the traditional ICV (internal combustion vehicle): dynamic, good looking, highly covetable and aspirational EV designs drawing on emotions beyond just virtue. EVs are cropping up in the right places: the 2019 World Car of the Year is the all-electric Jaguar i-pace (Prince Charles owns a black one); Avengers: Endgame featured the Audi e-tron range; and, of course, James Bond will soon be parking up his V6-hybrid Aston Martin Valhalla before he uncorks the Bollinger. Potential customers are also cottoning-on to the fact that EVs can perform in superior fashion to conventional vehicles: the power delivery is seamless meaning impressive torque and acceleration, and cars hold the road better because of the low weight distribution from the batteries on the floor-pan. The EV user-chooser can feel better about themselves — not because they are virtue-signalling (so last year) but because they can once again tap into the more traditionally aspirational feelings of car user-choosership (of which power may be one major element).
In the background is the professional impetus too: conversations in business transportation and human resource departments now focus on the need for zero-emission fleets. At the civic level, leading-edge cities around the world are pursuing clean mass-transit and electric mobility strategies: it is estimated that around half of London taxis will be zero-emissions within 12 months; in San Francisco, all new parking spaces will be mandated to incorporate charging points; in Toronto, all new-build accommodation must offer charging facilities.
The automotive industry reports the shift to customers spontaneously wanting to change to EVs rather than resisting pressure from establishment angst. Bullying or scaremongering can seem spurious and work counter-productively, and we don’t need to look at politics for an example. Take how, in 2018, with domestic energy suppliers given ambitious targets to convert households to smart meters, the sales pitches got unscrupulous and bad publicity from the CTSI case meant more drag on the already disappointing conversion rate. Only now (with a little help from positive publicity — and there’s the lesson) is uptake rate improving.
But people want the power on their side, pulling them along, emotionally compelling. They don’t want the power there on high, forcing a decision, pushing a cause.
It always been helpful that clean energy campaigns have sometimes shared pillow edge with political insurgency. It can suit both the Left and Right to come at the discussion from one extreme or another — social liberalism versus social conservatism at their most shrill and humourless (and you can even find people arguing over the prohibition of flying). Amidst it all, the positive benefits and emotional appeal of the clean brands and products can be lost in the jeopardy and point scoring.
Ultimately, we will transform perceptions less by urging extirpation (of carbon) and more by admiring generation (of power). So easy is it to lose the positive energy message — or one that plays on the emotional positivity of clean power. After decades of the pride of mobility, engineering, and communication sectors being sold in this way, why, when it comes to the clean energy variants, do now we defer to the negative, or perform with timidity and restraint over the positive?
The clean energy sector is on the edge of tipping into mainstream consciousness. But so much more is possible, and more quickly, if only we were to change more of the communication and tone into something less negative, less timid, and into something more positive, more confident.
So why has that only rarely happened? Perhaps it is because of a false juxtaposition between the notion of harmlessness (to the planet) and of the provision of power (which traditionally might be seen as aggressive, imperial, competitive, masculine, even destructive). Those two can seem to be semiological opposites, but they do not need to be. Benign, benevolently caring power can seem so… er… powerful.
For a start, clean energy gives rise to a veritable Junior Pocket Book of Amazing Facts. The largest single-site solar facility in the world is the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Power Plant serving Dubai and covers 77 square kilometres in hot panelling. The largest wind-farm in the world, the Walney Extension in the Irish Sea, is bigger than Manhattan Island with each tower as high as a full-size football pitch is long. Last year, the Airbus Zephyr solar-powered SHAPS aircraft flew without fuel for almost 26 days. At the super-premium end of the car market, Ferrari are launching their latest plug-in hybrid which develops 986bhp. In terms of revenue, the global renewables market (excluding biofuel) had almost reached the USD half-trillion mark by 2014 and some estimates suggest the USD 1-trillion mark in the next year. In the UK, renewables account for almost a third of electricity. China, not exactly well known for its ecological sensitivity, is building 2 wind-turbines every hour. In over 30 economies, solar power is cheaper than fossil. Wherever you look, the world of renewable energy engineering is creating ludicrous statistics and surreal images. Like Forth Rail Bridges or Apollo space programmes of the post-Millennial era this stuff represents the formidably best of human ingenuity, endeavour, innovation, and exceptionalism; humanity’s power to succeed when faced with challenge; humanity’s optimism and self-belief triumphing over pessimism.
Time was when the advertising industry loved the technological hyperbole: CDP’s Fiat Strada robots dancing to Rossini; BBH’s Vorsprung Durch Technik, Wieden & Kennedy’s Honda Dreams… The enthusiasm for the big automotive statement has, at times, been confident and profound — an analogy of the advertising industry perhaps. So when it comes to the marketing of today’s clean energy brands and their products and solutions, we should not be timid. Maybe we are at last seeing some of the old-fashioned zeal trying to come through, Audi’s “Electric has gone Audi” commercial might be one example, but with a cute touchy-feely dog to keep us sensitive. Jaguar’s i-pace has a stunning and stunningly powerful vehicle to be wholeheartedly confident about and really goes for it with its “Electrical storm (nothing to be afraid of)” film. That’s the spirit! But what about the other clean energy sectors that can sometimes seem reluctant to go hyperbolic and visceral? Is it because they think that clean is only for the more sensitive souls?
If we want to reach those big targets, we need positivity and hyperbole, not timidity.
In 1961, the Bradford public understood the important bit. In 2019, it’s time we did. Clean energy can have emotional power.