1st September 2020

UbiQD CEO Editorial: Why Green Energy Needs an Aesthetics Revolution

Green energy has unprecedented support, yet its adoption remains a challenge. Over three-fourths of Americans consider alternative energies such as solar power a priority, and yet, green energy adoption still remains slow. Coal, oil and natural gas still deliver at least 80% of US energy demand. The sad truth is that too many green energy initiatives have failed simply because they’re ugly. A green revolution needs to be as much about human behavioral change as it is about the actual energy technology that will help achieve it, but up until now, scientists and technologists alike have largely ignored this fact. For decades we have focused almost exclusively on building up green technology’s capabilities and performance. However, if we want green energy to achieve the mainstream adoption needed to counter forces like climate change, we need to leverage design-based thinking and science to address aesthetics just as much as efficiency. After all, no matter how breakthrough the technology, if you can’t package your product in a way that competes with your industry’s market leaders, you’ll forever be selling based only on unit economics and people’s good will. What Environmentalists Could Learn from Elon Musk The best proof that aesthetics matter as much as performance is Tesla. Before Elon Musk took over as CEO of Tesla, electric vehicles existed on the margins of the transportation market. It took Tesla — which is not only sustainable and efficient, but also has a strong, cool brand — to break out of a narrow demographic and into the mainstream. Now, the company is not only the leading EV auto manufacturer, it’s one of the most highly valued companies on the stock market, worth more than Disney. All this despite the fact that it’s still a minor player in terms of their share of automobile sales. Before Tesla, the most famous electric car was the General Motors EV1, which had a niche following of environmentalists and eco-minded celebrities. While the outward look of the car was fairly sleek, it suffered from some major design flaws for the average consumer. These drawbacks and a general lack of interest in the car meant that almost all of the vehicles were destroyed within a few years. It took Musk’s creation of Tesla’s Roadster in 2008 to bring the electric vehicle back as something that was desirable and worth the investment in electric. From there, the company continued to refine their brand and design until they achieved widespread critical acclaim with the Model S and huge commercial success with the Model 3. While Tesla’s cars are undeniably disrupting the automotive industry, Musk’s other green energy initiatives are running into the same adoption challenges as early EVs. Tesla has struggled to launch their Solar Roof product, and their more traditional rooftop Solar Panel business, acquired from Solar City in 2016, has also performed below expectations. While Tesla’s solar businesses seem to have recently turned a corner, the company’s challenges are proof that performance and aesthetics are not easy to achieve in tandem. Aesthetics Beat Legislation  We’ve seen similar reactions to the aesthetics of green technology on much smaller scales too. The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act effectively banned incandescent light bulbs in the US in favor of energy-saving lights. Despite the years of warning, when the time finally came for consumer behavior to shift, it didn’t. Just the opposite, in fact. Instead of switching over to energy-efficient LED lights, consumers began hoarding incandescent bulbs. Even though incandescent bulbs waste 90% of their energy and have a shorter lifespan than their government-mandated replacements, consumers would not give them up and, in fact, went to great lengths to avoid a literal law around energy efficiency. One of the primary reasons for this resistance was aesthetics. LED lights were infamous at the time for their harsh, bluish light, compared to incandescents’ classic warm light. While many LED light manufacturers overcame the blue-light problem as early as 2013, it took until 2017 for the LED market to finally feel like they were on a path to widespread adoption. Even this increase in adoption was likely only possible because the LED bulb design has shifted to look exactly like incandescent bulbs — with filaments and all. Like the electric car market, the initial resistance of consumers to energy-efficient lighting proves that overcoming a negative consumer perception is difficult and can have market-wide consequences for years. Once a consumer has an unfavorable perception of a clean technology, it serves as just another entrenched barrier for the industry as a whole to overcome. Aesthetics Will Fuel the Green Revolution The cornerstone of the green revolution, like any new product, must be convincing the customer they actually want and need it. Sustainable functionality must be balanced with aesthetic design to actually achieve consumer behavior change around these new technologies. One technology that is still in the middle of this Darwinian design evolution is electricity-generating solar windows. Like both electric vehicles and energy-efficient light bulbs, solar windows have the capability to be another cornerstone of the sustainable energy market. However, while the technology is economically viable, solar windows have typically been designed in a way that has led to a number of preconceptions about their desirability among architects. Whether the technology is ultimately accepted like Tesla’s Model 3 or rejected like the first LED light bulbs, solar windows are at an important inflection point that will determine whether we can sustain cities in the future. By 2050, scientists project that 68% of the world’s growing population will live in cities. However, commercial and residential buildings in urban settings are already heavy loads on the energy grid, accounting for 40% of the total U.S. energy consumption. If we keep up at this rate, the math just doesn’t work out. That’s why it’s crucial that solar window manufacturers prioritize aesthetics, particularly as the industry grows. The market currently expects solar windows that compromise on transparency by incorporating electric “webbing”, haze, or extreme tinting. However, the mainstream adoption of solar window technology by architects and real estate developers depends upon uncompromised aesthetics because, after all, windows are meant to be looked through, not at. The good news is that we already have proof that science can help us achieve both efficiency and aesthetics. Now, it’s just about implementation. When you’re bringing a new thing into the market, it has to provide an extraordinary user experience and be grounded in design-thinking. Apple understood this when introducing its products, and is why the company is now the most valuable in the world. Likewise, Elon Musk - a Steve Jobs disciple - has built and marketed Tesla with the values of consumer experience and behaviors leading the company’s strategy and product design. When we finally begin emphasizing design and aesthetics for sustainable products in ways that will align with consumer behavior, then we may actually begin growing the green revolution. This editorial will be published soon at TBD.