by Liz Visconti, MBA’20
This article was written in response to a seminar given by Arvin Ganesan, Energy and Environment Policy, Apple, in an EDGE Seminar on Jan. 29, 2020 at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. This article voices one student’s perspective and does not necessarily represent the views of either Duke University or the seminar speaker.
Apple has changed our lives in profound ways since its inception in 1976, and in our recent EDGE Seminar, Arvin Ganesan of Apple’s Energy and Environmental Policy team provided food for thought as to whether or how Apple might change the way the world thinks about energy. Given that Apple has massive reach, with 100 million people in the US owning an iPhone, Apple clearly has the ability to inform its users on any topic, including the energy use of its devices. However, whether they will is an open question.
Apple has been quietly making bold moves on energy and environment issues. One could imagine that they might take their interest in clean energy a step further by surfacing energy-related information to users, a move that could be a massive psychological change for how people think about energy.
Location – check. Renewable energy generation information – check.
Ganesan described Apple’s work on energy and sustainability, touting Apple’s 100% renewable energy achievement. Apple has deep expertise in purchasing and supporting renewable energy projects, so they are aware of when renewable energy is on the grid, and as we all know, our locations are always available when our phones are with us. These two pieces mean that it’s possible for Apple to surface a notification to our phones and devices that states when to charge based on when renewable energy is being generated in our area. For example, the notifications could say, “Charge between 12:00 and 3:00 PM to use solar power.”
Apple is capable of doing this, but will they? And if they did, why would that matter?
Ganesan shared the pillars behind Apple’s environmental policy: climate change, smarter chemistry, and resources. Notably, in 2015, Apple set an internal goal to power 100% of its facilities with renewable energy and accomplished the goal in 2017. However, Apple only announced their feat after it was achieved, never announcing the goal publicly. If Apple had publicly announced their goal when they set it, they would have been among the first companies to promote such a goal. Increasingly, companies are setting bold energy and sustainability goals (see Microsoft and Blackrock, recently). However, Apple is known for having a very secretive culture, so this move is not surprising. But by keeping quiet, they may have deprived the corporate world of social pressure to set sustainability and energy goals.
Apple has become more transparent with their energy and sustainability goals today, but whether they want to translate their sustainability focus from their operations to their customers’ behavior is an open question.
The user experience of providing Apple users with information on when to charge their devices to use renewable energy could take many forms, but bringing this information into the palms of millions of people could have a profound effect on people’s awareness of their energy use. Today, the average person thinks about their energy use for eight minutes per year, or basically no time at all.
However, if consumers suddenly became aware of the fact that using energy at certain times was more beneficial, they might make some changes. I anticipate that there are five potential effects:
- Apathy: No changes, most people ignore this feature like they ignore their weekly screen time notifications.
- Increased awareness of how the power grid works: Users may see this information and realize that, for example, solar energy is most prevalent during the day and anything plugged in will use solar power during that time.
- Behavior change: Users could take awareness one step further and change their behavior, opting to charge devices during peak renewable energy time.
- Increased pressure on device makers and utilities: Going even further than changing their behaviors, people might think that devices should automatically charge when renewables are on the grid and that they should be rewarded for doing so. This could create consumer demand for a potentially massive shift in energy-usage patterns, force utilities increase the supply of renewable energy, spawn new innovations in the space, and reduce carbon emissions.
- Backlash: It’s possible that this information could cause anger among some users who want to charge when it’s convenient to them or who don’t care about their environmental footprint which could negate any of the effects above.
We know Apple can surface energy information to its users, but we likely won’t know if they will until the day we receive a notification about it. However, with such enormous reach, the potential to change minds and behaviors enormous. The “Apple watch” continues…