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NRG-powered Eco Lands at Outside Lands 2105 in San Francisco

Is the power of choice lost on us?

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recently attended Outside Lands, enjoying Odesza, Caribou, and — my favorite performance of the weekend — Amon Tobin’s ISAM Live 2.0 (a glorious final show).

Historically, I haven’t been much of a festival goer, but I was motivated by the opportunity to work with NRG Energy to bring attention to the pressing need for renewable energy and their efforts to fulfill that need.

Within NRG’s #nrgLANDS was a hammock hangouts, beer from Sierra Nevada made with renewable energy, mobile solar recharging stations, and a solar panel installation that dispensed checks in the amount of money saved from harvesting energy from the sun:

If you had the power to choose, which power source would you choose?

Of the stations at #nrgLANDS, this was the most arresting among them:

This social experiment (originally staged at an airport) was fascinating to watch because power source segmentation like this isn’t actually possible. Unlike packets on the internet, you can’t trace a photon back to its source, but it certainly raises the question: what if you could?

Considering the ubiquity of the Compost, Recycle, Landfull containers in homes and public spaces (in the Bay Area anyway), would this kind of optionality translate into changes in energy consumers’ behavior?

Anecdotally — from observing this station during OSL and from responses on Instagram and Twitter (a small sample no doubt) — people chose whichever outlet was available, with only a slight preference for solar or wind. But when all of the solar or wind outlets were in use, people seemed to opt for the “Fossil Fuel” outlets without hesitation.

As Ben Kessler put it:

Putting a price on unrenewable energy

iven the impact of burning fossil fuels on the global climate, this ambivalence is frustrating but not surprising. Part of the problem may be salience: where energy comes from doesn’t affect whether it’ll charge your phone, so why choose one source over another?

While the environmental impact is often portrayed in dramatic video of melting ice caps, the immediate impact is delayed. The logic seems to be that we’ll either figure out a solution or just change our behavior later, when it’s clear that we need to act. But as far too many scientists know, global climate change isn’t something you can just throw in reverse on a dime. The damage we’re doing and have done will take decades to slow down, and it’s unclear if we’ll be able to stop the impact we’ve already had.

So what if we tweaked the experiment and added an economic dimension to make the choices more salient?

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Price of oil from 1970–1980. Credit: macrotrends.net

During the 1970s, we saw a run on gas stations in 1973 and 1979 as the price of a barrel of oil spiked due to global conflict. Adjusting for inflation, the price of gas jumped over 250% from $2.18/g in 1970 to $5.66/g in 1980! Certainly this spike (and the related shortages) affected behavior — including sparking interest in more efficient vehicles and reducing the national speed limit to 55MPH.

What if, in the context of this social experiment,
fossil fuels were made really expensive again?

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Indeed, this kind of market dynamic may not be far off now that solar and wind energy production is as abundant and reliable as fossil fuels. In terms of generation, clean energy sources eclipsed those of fossil fuels in 2013 according to Bloomberg, ‘when the world added 143 gigawatts of renewable electricity capacity, compared with 141 gigawatts in new plants that burn fossil fuels’.

So progress is being made. And if this trend keeps pace with the projections shown here, choosing where the energy that powers their phones comes from won’t be a choice that consumers will need to make. Instead, the true powers that be will swap out unsustainable sources for renewable ones without anyone noticing. And that would be a good thing.

Coming away from Outside Lands, I’m thrilled that more and more pop culture events and large festivals are moving in the direction of sustainability and renewable energy sources.

At the same time, what I took from observing this social experiment is that looking to the individual to change their behavior merely out of “good will” leaves too much power in their hands. Instead, we’ll clearly need to rely on forward-looking companies (like NRG Energy, Tesla, Google, et al) and other public interest institutions to alter the sources of energy we rely on.

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Inventor of the hashtag. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Previously: Google, Uber, Molly (YC W18).

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