Negotiating The World Of Solar Energy Through Humor: The Sunion

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“Satirical renewable energy ‘news’ you can trust” is the slogan for the Sunion. Yes, the online spoof’s title is borrowed from the Onion, which, for years, has peeled back the duplicitous layers of media, government, and commercial subterfuge that surround and try to lure us into an acquiescent, unquestioning funk.

We live in times in which we desperately need a massive shift to renewable energy. It’s imperative if we are to limit global warming to the 1.5° C level outlined by the IPCC. But are enough people are paying attention?

The Sunion’s admission that the publication is created in “the spirit of making fun of one’s self” is insightful, for humor is a way of opening doors to meaning-making around complex issues like renewable energy. Through a combination of attention to real people and companies and their (in)action, the Sunion can persuade us emotionally, encourage us to share, and break down social barriers — all in the pursuit of creating a zero emissions world.

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Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame defined satire as “a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own, which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.” Because satire holds human nature up to criticism and scorn, the Sunion’s social commentary on the intersection of consumerism, social status, and solar energy makes us blink and take notice — and, hopefully, begin to see our roles in the energy transition.

How does the Sunion Compel Us to Think about Energy?

Satirists perform an important function in society when they expose errors and absurdities that we no longer notice because custom and familiarity have blinded us to them. The Sunion points out that it is a collaborative side project of a few people who work in solar and who require humor and laughter to tolerate this “strange, frustrating, wonderful industry.” There is no single author or firm responsible for the Sunion content. Though some of the ideas may be spurred by observations of other industry’s  silliness, the majority of the content is derived from the authors’ “own past mistakes, absurd internal dialogue, or awful ideas quickly pivoted into satire.”

The folks at Sunion incorporate the traditional tropes of satire to make their messages hit home: irony, sarcasm, hyperbole, understatement, stereotype, logical appeals, emotional appeals, and ethical appeals. Let’s look at a few of their catchy titles and deconstruct some of the meaning beneath the surface, shall we?

NREL: Novel $.60 / Watt Rooftop Z-Axis Tracker Exceeds Expected +.0000004% Efficiency Gains. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) says it is transforming energy through research, development, commercialization, and deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. PV boosters are hyped to suggest their tilted tracking provides more energy to shrink project costs.

Energy efficiency on an individual basis takes real effort and determination, as CleanTechnica’s Scott Cooney relates in this article. A 2021 report indicates that installing rooftop solar panels and community solar systems to serve the equivalent of 30 million American homes would create significant economic benefits — including 1.77 million jobs and $69 billion electricity bill savings over the next 5 years — while addressing the climate crisis and historic inequities. Yet an important component of such a mass move to solar requires deep federal financing commitments and grant programs for local solar deployment. The Sunion intimates the progress NREL as a federal energy arm has made has been too incremental to be really meaningful.

NextEra Execs Fire PR Firm After Being Passed Over For PV Magazine’s Sexiest Solar Developer of The Year.” There’s so much going on here! NextEra describes itself as one of the “largest capital investors in infrastructure, with between $50 and $55 billion in new infrastructure investments planned through 2022.” The complicity of PR firms like Edelman in assisting fossil fuel companies to maintain a rosy marketing image has come under lots of scrutiny lately (see here and here). The Sunion title points out that being first may be more important than being just.

Advertisers use sexual imagery to attract sales of diverse products, and, though always risky, studies show that it works because it immediately grabs attention. PV Magazine (which does not give out a “Sexiest Developer of the Year Award) concentrates on covering the latest solar PV news, topical technological trends, and worldwide market developments. But the Sunion is making transparent how much sex sells and that the solar industry needs help in new directions to make its message transparent and appealing to audiences.

Navajo Nation Sends Stock Thank You Letter To the 387 Developers Who Selflessly Offered Partnership On APS RFP Response.” The Navajo Nation is the largest Indian reservation in the US, comprising more than 17.5 million acres, or more than 27,000 square miles, across northeast Arizona, northwest New Mexico, and southeast Utah. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) is the multi-service utility that provides electric, water, wastewater, natural gas, and communications services for the Navajo Nation. NTUA is the largest Native American-owned utility in the US and has about 755 employees — 97% of whom are of Navajo descent.

Working with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA), APS described in 2020 how it was helping to electrify rural homes within the Navajo communities of Tuba City and Cameron in northern Arizona. Supported by APS’s line extension program, which would  cover up to $10,000 toward the cost of each home connection, and the Navajo Nation CARES Act funding, the collaboration was intended to bring electric power to approximately 8 homes.

In the film Major League, Bob Uecker says, “One hit? One g-d hit? That’s all we got?” His color man says, “You can’t say ‘g-d’ on the radio.” Uecker replies, “Don’t worry. Nobody’s listening, anyway.” The Sunion expresses a similar sentiment on behalf of the Navajo Nation, with pleas to help 15,000 families who have no access to electricity. Of course, with per capita income in the region at only about $10,700, its utility companies aren’t exactly competing to provide services to people with such limited ability to pay high costs. But 8 houses? 8 g-d houses? Is that the best we can do to provide renewable energy for US society’s neediest people?

Bloomberg says the Sunion’s “arch headlines and jargon-laden articles often capture the business of solar better than any white paper or news story could.” Good for them. Let’s help out and try to do our own part to share the power and place of solar energy in our world — today and tomorrow.

Image retrieved from NOAA/open source

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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