Both concern about climate change and installations of solar PV and other renewable energy systems are on an upward and accelerating trajectory across the globe. It would seem logical to assume there is a direct correlation between the number of installations and the influence of environmental concerns. Actually, the opposite is true, but this, ironically, is ensuring the inevitability of the energy transition.
As much as I have a long-fostered technical interest in renewables, the primary driver for my career transition from science teaching to solar was my desire to have an impact on the climate emergency and align my career to my strongest values. I was excited to work with like-minded individuals working towards a common goal: to reduce the planet’s carbon emissions.
Indeed, the first company I worked for had been started by a keen Environmental Science graduate back in the 1980s and their product’s greenness was far higher on the agenda than profits and cashflow.
However, she had sold the company several years ago to a CEO who had no interest in climate change. He was as much a fan of natural gas as renewable energy and any reference to carbon reductions in company literature was removed. Clients don’t care about the environment, he said. They just want to know how much return they will get from their investment.
And yet: He increased the number of installations exponentially; he drove an electric car and his house was highly energy efficient.
I even agree with him about solar customers. The irony is, people are caring more and more about the environment and climate change, but solar customers are caring less and less. Surely, that’s disappointing, so why am I so pleased about it?
Money is Attractive, Climate Change Isn’t
If you have a child who refuses to eat their vegetables, you can tell them it’s healthy until you’re blue in the face. You could even take the alarmist approach and warn them that if the vegetables are not eaten by 20:30 this evening, they will get scurvy. Maybe a few children would respond to this, but the majority would be left unphased and unhealthy. The one who hides the vegetables in a tasty snack or a meaty burger is the one who cracks the nut. The same is true for any net zero solutions, including solar.
If you search for solar PV advertisements, you will be hard-pressed to find anything remotely celebrating the environmental consciousness of the product. ‘Maximise your savings’, ‘Save thousands of rupees monthly’ are all that you will see.
Rewind the clock to the 2010s and it was a different story. A 2017 research paper by Provoke Insights found that only 41% of their sample cited financial savings as their primary motivator for purchasing residential solar.
By 2021, a similar study by the UK Government found that return on investment was overwhelmingly the primary driver of sales and environmental concerns were barely cited.
Climate Concern on the Rise
You might think that this suggests that climate concern is declining in favour of profit and business-as-usual. You’d be wrong. A 2021 study by Yale University found a ‘dramatic increase’ in worries about climate change, with over a threefold rise in those who are ‘very worried’ between October 2014 and September 2021.
Similarly, a 2020 study by The Lancet found rising and accelerating public prioritisation of climate mitigation from 11th place in 2015 to 3rd place in 2020.
So, it’s not that people don’t care that installing renewables helps the environment, but it’s more like the icing on the cake rather than a primary driver anymore. Luckily, their plummeting prices, coupled with soaring energy tariffs, has made financial investment a much more sustainable factor in buying decisions.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
For this reason, I am breathing a sigh of relief. It’s simply exhausting to rely on the political bellwether swaying to the left to start making significant strides in the right direction. Even the aforementioned surveys display a fickle public who cannot perseverate over one issue for more than a year or so before it is ousted in favour of a new concern.
Also, fear-based motivation may be useful in short-term emergencies, but for relatively long timeframes such as this, they have been shown to suppress action and reduce support for mitigation techniques, such as renewables.
Money, on the other hand, will always attract for as long as society is predominantly capitalist. Let’s be okay with using this to our advantage.
We’re not all the way out the tunnel yet, and success in our fight against climate change is all but guaranteed. However, through the sea of sadness and despair, we can see a clear trend away from the darkest futures, with some studies even suggesting an alignment with net zero, globally.
Bipartisan Links Emerging
The other thing about money is that it transgresses political divide and the more effect it has, to the detriment of environmental concerns, the less contentious it becomes to renewables’ greatest critics.
This is how we’re starting to see right-wing newspapers championing net zero (as well as fiercely condemning it- Rome wasn’t built in a day), as well as the most conservative of Democrats (eventually) supporting $385 billion of clean energy credits.
Like it or lump it, we live in a capitalist society. If we want to maintain renewables’ meteoric rise, we have to avoid mentioning climate change.