Using Art to Start Clean Energy Conversations

In conversations about energy and emissions it’s easy to quickly get, for want of a better word, “wonky.” From the complex science of clean energy generation to the finer points of energy and emissions policy, it’s not hard for those of us with a strong interest in the topic to become absorbed in a world of technical jargon and obscure language utterly baffling to the uninitiated.

I myself have often been guilty of “severe energy jargon syndrome,” and paid for it in bemused expressions and blank looks. Recently I’ve found when unwieldy terms and acronyms make holding a conversation about energy difficult, the antidote can be to fall back on art—an innovative medium for conveying messages about clean energy that you don’t need a college degree to understand.

Just yesterday I was reminded how effectively art can break through the fog of technical terms, statistics, and policy minutiae that often clouds conversations about energy and emissions. That’s because I was part of a group of tending-toward-young clean energy activists in Oregon who came together to use artistic techniques to literally put a vision of clean energy and sustainable business on canvas. The “Paint Past Coal” event in Portland, Oregon offered passersby the chance to join in as we envisioned a future in which Oregon’s largest source of carbon emissions and pollution—the notorious Boardman Coal Plant—is replaced with clean energy within five years.

Our group began the morning at Portland’s Waterfront Park, where we set up a seven-foot canvas and started painting. By the end of four hours we’d completed a depiction of the Boardman Coal Plant—painted in gloomy colors in the back corner of the image—transitioning into a future filled with wind turbines, solar panels, community gardens, and clean water and air. Our message was a simple one, conveyed much more neatly through art than any amount of statistics and technical jargon: when communities unite with a common purpose, sustainable clean energy solutions are possible. By harnessing people power, Oregon and other states can clear the air and waterways while improving public health and putting people back to work with green jobs.

When the painting had been completed, we carried our canvas a couple blocks to the nearby offices of Portland General Electric (PGE), operator of the Boardman Coal Plant. We gathered outside the building for a sidewalk rally and press conference, which drew local TV and radio stations as well as many interested looks from passersby. Our group included students and recent graduate from at least five Oregon colleges, as well as a sprinkling of intergenerational student allies. What was striking to me was how positive an image our rally around the giant canvas made on the sidewalk. If PGE’s decision makers have doubts that tools now exist to build a clean energy future, they had only to look through the window at the painting outside.

At the end of the day facts, figures, and—yes—technical jargon, will always be an essential part of the blueprint for a clean energy future. But policymakers and large corporations are still not taking the need to slash carbon emissions seriously, and maybe innovators need a new medium to convey their vision for the future. Yesterday in Oregon, we got a glimpse of how art might break through energy deadlock. How else might artistic media be used to spur meaningful conversations about energy?

Photo credits: Mika Hernandez

Nick Engelfried is a freelance writer on climate and energy issues, and works with campuses and communities in the Pacific Northwest to reduce the causes of climate change.