Roughly ten years ago, I attended a conference in London about heating and micro-generation. One of the sessions was a panel discussion with directors from companies involved in solar, domestic wind, heat pumps, and micro-CHP (combined heat and power). The discussion centered around the challenges faced by these industries and what needed to be done to increase uptake of these more sustainable, new energy technologies.
I’d recently written an article in a trade publication about how manufacturers of high tech heating appliances needed to focus not just on making their products technically good, but also to make them desirable to consumers, just as Apple had transformed the computer industry with iMac by making the utilitarian home computer into an object of desire. They turned an item that was unattractive and intimidating into a device that was inviting, beautiful and even a status symbol.
At that time, the heating and micro-renewables industry were producing products that were at best bland, and at worst downright ugly. Relegated to utility rooms, cupboards and garages, they were products that the owners would look at or interact with only when they really had to.
I raised my hand and asked the panel:
Do you think that improved aesthetic and user experience design could be used to make these very functional products into objects of desire that people would aspire to own?
People spend huge amounts of money on making their homes beautiful and also are prepared to spend money on the latest gadgets that they can show off to their friends, so it seemed like a no brainer to me at the time. To my surprise, my question returned a strong negative reaction from all panelists, who insisted that such factors were not relevant in what was a purely utilitarian industry.
A decade later, however, there are some signs that things might be starting to change.
This week, Jeremy Leggett, the founder of Solarcentury, and one of the entrepreneurs that I admire the most, officially launched something that he admits he thought was impossible. Sunstation is a domestic solar product that’s aesthetically pleasing on the roof but doesn’t cost any more than a typical solar installation. Jeremy Leggett was actually one of the panellists that I had posed this question to ten years ago, and although I’ve no doubt that he has long forgotten my question, I’m pleased to see him now helping to pioneer this new approach.
Side note: By pure coincidence, my company also got the opportunity to design and build the website for Sunstation.
It isn’t just Solarcentury though. Nissan just announced that it is soon to launch its xStorage home battery system, designed at their European design center to be easy to use and beautiful.
This follows on the heals of Tesla’s Powerwall product, that more or less single handedly sparked public interest in the idea of home battery storage. Hopefully, these new products will strike a chord with the public and help to accelerate the uptake of more sustainable home energy technology.