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Clean Energy News of the Week: Solar Roadways Video Going Viral

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Clean Energy News of the Week: Solar Roadways Video Going Viral

As the once far-fetched idea of "solar roadways" gains a huge convoy of supporters—from the U.S. Department of Transportation to Google to the Times of India to even Fox News—a new video aimed at the millennial generation is set to go viral again, according to clean energy advocates.

This just might be the inspiring, riveting and definitive roadmap for clean energy independence—Solar Freakin' Roadways:

Many of us learned about the visionary energy inventors Julie and Scott Brusaw and their Solar Roadways in 2010, thanks to the first viral video by filmmakers Ben and Julie Evans and Mark Dixon, who broke the story on the Brusaws in their award-winning film, YERT—Your Environmental Road Trip.

"We first discovered Solar Roadways on the YERT trip in 2007 when Scott and Julie were just getting started—in fact, Scott called us the 'guinea pigs' for his original powerpoint presentation about it—and the idea completely blew our minds," said Ben Evans, director of the film YERT.

According to Evans:

What they were working to invent was so outside the box and seemingly impossible that Mark (Dixon, producer of YERT) and I thought Scott might just be some crazy dude living in the woods. Well he does live in the woods, but he's perfectly sane, really smart, and as nice and down-to-earth as you can imagine. We uploaded the first Solar Roadways video in late-2007 which got a little traction, and then an updated video about the first major prototype in mid-2010, an adapted version of which was included in our feature-length eco-docu-comedy which came out the following year. That second video really "broke the story" in a way—the idea completely captured people's imagination and the video went viral on YouTube. Boom! We'd never experienced anything quite like it—Mark and I started getting emails from people literally all over the world with ideas or suggestions or requests to have Solar Roadways in their city—and of course we'd forward all of those emails to Scott and Julie, since it's their baby. But it's been really cool to help get this idea out into the world and to be some part of enabling the Solar Roadways phenomenon.

Check out one of the original YERT interviews with the Brusaws:

Seven years after breaking the solar roadways story, the YERT team added:

Of all the incredible environmental solutions highlighted in our feature film, it's one of the ones that resonates the most with people. Now with their newly-installed working prototype and their Indiegogo campaign to seed the manufacturing process, Solar Roadways really has a chance to become a reality in the near future. That's just incredible—but it can't happen without the support of people who care. Scott and Julie are doing all they can to keep this "of, by, and for the people" by crowd-funding it as much as possible, so supporting their Indiegogo campaign is crucial. I think this hilarious new video by Michael Naphan really brings home for a new audience what Solar Roadways is and why we need it. I hope it helps the mission!

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Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Sir David Attenborough look at a piece of ice core from the Antarctic during a naming ceremony for the polar research ship the RSS Sir David Attenborough on Sept. 26, 2019 in Birkenhead, England. Asadour Guzelian - WPA Pool / Getty Images

By Elliot Douglas

In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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