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Communicating the Energy Revolution

By Zachary Shahan
A Pelamis wave energy converter in Scotland, UK [© Pelamis Wave Power]

The clean tech movement is about a shift toward a more peaceful world, a world in which there is more respect for others and in which our ways of living leave a smaller environmental footprint. Clean energy is not just about cleaning our air, preserving our water supplies and helping to protect our climate; it is also about democratizing the energy sector.

When I started blogging about clean tech some four and a half years ago, solar and wind energy were growing fast. That growth has subsequently picked up at an exponential pace. Choosing which 15 or so stories to cover each day on my website has become one of my biggest challenges.

With CleanTechnica.com, Solar Love and the other sites I run, I view "communicating the renewable energy revolution" and further stimulating that revolution through such communication as my prime objectives. There are two things I love about the phrase in quotation marks. First, this is a revolution--there is no doubt about it. Second, communication is a very interesting matter. There are many subtleties to communication that we generally overlook. We often say things, knowing where we are going next with our thoughts (and with our own cultural and knowledge background deeply influencing how we view those thoughts), without realizing that our words may have unforeseen effects or be heard in ways that we do not intend.

One example concerns the debunking of myths. It is very common to communicate a myth before debunking it. Research has shown, however, that presenting the myth first is more likely to ingrain the myth in the listener's head in the medium to long term. Counterintuitively, this is actually even more so if you debunk the myth in great detail.

A democracy is based on information being available, shared and acted upon, yet there is a massive amount of misinformation about clean energy, and therefore a great need for independent voices and analysts to inform more people of the actual facts. Misinformation and a simple lack of awareness are probably now the largest barriers to the clean tech revolution. Transformation occurs through information sharing--blogging about clean energy and connecting the topic to millions of people is an important part of that.

Solar Power and Wind Power

Solar power has been a dream for ages. In 1931, Thomas Edison wrote, "I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that."

The energy potential from sunshine for one single year is far greater than the energy potential of all known coal, oil, uranium and natural gas reserves combined. The circles in the chart shown here represent annual potential for renewable sources.

The potential is amazing. The solar energy hitting the state of Texas each month is greater than the total amount of energy the Texas oil and gas industry has ever produced.

Importantly, while sunshine is free, the solar panels needed to collect the energy in that sunshine and convert it into electricity are not. However, solar panels today are over 100 times cheaper (per watt) than they were in 1977. Since 2011, the cost of solar panels has dropped by approximately 60 percent, and growth has also been a big part of the stimulus for the cost drops. It is a virtuous circle. The growth curve for the solar panel market over the past few years is steep and resembles that of a plant shooting out of the earth toward the sun!

Solar power is now cheaper than retail electricity for millions of households. In the developed world, it can save countless homeowners tens of thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, all across the developing world, solar power is actually cheaper than power generated from fossil fuels. Just as many people in the developing world leapfrogged from no phones to cell phones, these populations will leapfrog from no electricity to electricity from solar panels.

The cost of wind power came down much earlier than the cost of solar power. In many regions of the world, wind power is currently the cheapest form of renewables-based electricity available--and also cheaper than electricity generated from coal, natural gas, nuclear power and oil, even if related health and environmental costs, which are staggering in themselves, are not taken into account. And costs continue to fall. The cost of wind turbines has fallen by approximately 29 percent since 2008.

In 2012, more wind power capacity was installed in the US than for any other power source. Wind is also routinely at the top of the global charts for annual power capacity additions.

Democratizing the Energy System

One of the major implications of solar power growth, electric vehicle growth and wind power growth to some extent (wind turbines are great additions to farms and small communities) is that they are essentially democratizing our energy system. They decentralize ownership and provide more societal power and more money to common citizens and small businesses. They create more energy independence and security for families, cities and nations, which I believe will ultimately contribute to greater peace in the world.

Also, there has got to be some positive psychological effect from people realizing that they are no longer burning the bones of dinosaurs (amongst other fossils!) for their energy needs, but are instead using renewable sources of energy such as sunlight and wind.



Special website feature: SGI Quarterly Interview with Zachary Shahan, director and editor of the CleanTechnica.com website

SGI Quarterly: You say you were ahead of the curve in blogging about clean energy when you started in 2008. How do you stay on top of the curve?

Zachary Shahan: It's a definite challenge. I would say that the greatest challenge in my job is actually covering (or having our sites' bloggers cover) all the amazing clean energy news we are seeing every day, while also adding our own original commentary and analyses. It becomes harder and harder to choose which are the top stories of the day, and harder and harder to accept that we can't write about everything. Specific tools that I use daily to manage the stream of cleantech awesomeness that is going on are: Feedly, Google+, and Google Drive among others.

SGIQ: Do you find there are some sorts of renewables that are more newsworthy and faster developing than others?

ZS: Solar energy and wind energy are the giants of the renewable energy world. They have the most potential by far, just in terms of sheer energy potential [see this graph of growth in wind capacity and this graph of growth in solar photovoltaic capacity]. Solar is leagues above anything else in that regard. These two sources are also seeing the greatest growth, spurred on by massive cost drops [see graph for wind and for solar]. There are many other renewables that have great benefits and potential too--geothermal, micro-hydro, wave energy and much more. So, we try to keep up-to-date with all of them.

SGIQ: Who are your readers?

ZS: Our readership is quite varied, but there are some clear variations from the overall population. Last I polled our readers, about one third of them were working in a clean tech industry. We try to write our articles both for ordinary people and industry insiders, sometimes a challenging line to skate on. Otherwise, our readership is rather heavily male, well-educated and richer than the average American.

SGIQ: How do you make clean energy attractive to the younger generation?

ZS: This is one of the easiest aspects of blogging about clean energy--it's simply exciting by nature! It offers such a wealth of health, economic, environmental and security benefits. Furthermore, it is democratizing the energy industry. Democratization is exciting. Technological revolution is exciting. Ensuring clean air, clean water and a liveable climate for our children and grandchildren is exciting!

SGIQ: What is your motivation for your blogs?

ZS: I have a degree in sociology and environmental studies. My passion since I was young was helping the world help itself. I moved into city planning for my master's degree, but am happy that I found my way to this profession. There is a great deal of misinformation put out there about clean energy, and there's a desperate need for independent voices and analysts to help inform more people of the actual facts. Unfortunately, one of the downsides of democracy is that it allows for manipulation by those with power, money, and more information than others. While the situation here is never going to be perfect, the democratization of publishing--through the Internet and the many publishing platforms that are now available for free (such as Facebook, Google+, Wordpress etc.)--is helping.

Transformation happens through information sharing--blogging about clean energy and connecting important points about the topic to millions of people is a key part of advancing the revolution. Blogging and other forms of independent media are helping to advance society in myriad ways and toward new realms!

Zachary Shahan is the director and editor of CleanTechnica.com , which, like other websites he runs, provides news and commentary on solar power, wind power, energy efficiency, "clean" transport and other renewable or "clean" technologies. The site aims to build a community of world citizens that enables humanity to move forward in a positive direction.
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