Check out these heat pumps that look like George Clooney

The energy researcher who created a viral tweet thread has a knack for making energy issues enticing to the masses. Find out what else he’s up to.

Supported by

  • Link copied to clipboard

Canary Media’s Friday Social column explores the intersection of energy, climate and social media. Canary thanks Silverline Communications for its support of the column.

The most-read Friday Social articles to date include one on whether heat pumps need a rebrand and another about celebrity Edward Norton getting wonky on solar policy. So when a viral tweet thread that involved both a celebrity AND heat pumps appeared in my feed, I knew I had to write about it to get to the top spot on Canary’s internal list of weekly pageviews (I may have previously mentioned that I’m a tad competitive).

I quickly realized, though, that there was more to this story than just a viral thread on Twitter. It turns out that London-based energy researcher and artist Mike Fell, the thread’s author, has a bunch of side projects worthy of being included in a Friday Social article.

Subscribe to receive Canary's latest news

For your enjoyment, here is the viral Twitter thread of heat pumps that resemble George Clooney, followed by my interview with Fell in which he talks about his other endeavors, including an energy-themed board game and a website that helps British biscuit bakers shrink their carbon footprints. We messaged over email while Mike apparently walked around the cliffs in Cornwall. Our exchange has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Mike Munsell: Can you tell me about yourself?

Mike Fell: I’m an energy researcher at University College London. I’m interested in the social aspects of zero-carbon transitions — like how we can make the best use of electricity derived from renewables when it is available, and how we can do this in a way that doesn’t increase (and ideally addresses) existing inequalities. In my spare time, I work on projects that take slightly unconventional approaches to engaging people with [the idea of] a zero-carbon future, like ShouldIBake​.com, which helps people time their baking to coincide with periods of high renewables generation (see the Twitter bot) and pump:chic.

Munsell: Wow, back-to-back Friday Social posts that feature European-energy-focused Twitter bots. You also created a portrait that changes based on current levels of renewables generation, which is so cool! I see it uses some of the same National Grid carbon-intensity data as the baking tool, but you also mention that it uses Octopus Energy Agile pricing. Can you tell me more about how that works?

Fell: Agile is a [rate plan] from [British renewable energy provider] Octopus Energy where the price per unit of electricity varies every half-hour depending on the wholesale price. Because the wholesale price is so high now, I don’t think many people are still on [the rate plan]. But you used to be able to get a really good deal at times, including negative prices when there was very high wind generation. The prices are available via an API, which is what feeds into the portrait.

Munsell: And what is pump:chic? That’s what led to the George Clooney thread on Twitter, right?

Fell: Yes, pump:chic started out as a kind of Hot or not?” for heat pumps. I try to get people to submit photos of their pumps (especially where they have been landscaped nicely), and site users can rate them.

Munsell: That’s funny! Canary Media went through a similar exercise on Twitter recently after realizing that stock-photo websites are lacking quality heat-pump photos.

Fell: The aim of pump:chic is to show people how heat pumps can be made to look good. I then introduced a test drive” element. It is very hard to try out a great pump unless you know someone who has one. So the test drive lets you see what one would look like in your space using an augmented reality app or a physical model. It also lets you hear the sound at calibrated volume and run your current gas combi boiler in a similar way to a heat pump.

It is about giving people a different way to get familiar with these aspects of a net-zero future that are often talked about mainly in technical and financial terms.

Munsell: When I was on your website, I also saw that you created an energy-themed board game?

Fell: Yes. Watts the Deal? is a board game I created with my colleagues at University College London based around the idea of peer-to-peer energy trading. This is where, for example, a household equipped with solar can sell excess generation directly to their neighbor. Done in the right way, this could be useful in helping manage electricity networks with more distributed generation and also make investing in technologies like solar power and batteries more financially viable.

Again, it can be a bit of a dry and technical subject. The game brings it to life for people and makes it easy and fun to discuss. We’ve played it with a whole range of people, from [employees of] the energy regulator to schoolchildren, always with interesting results.

Munsell: If George Clooney is reading this article, what message do you have for him?

Fell: He is known as a supporter of environmental and human rights causes. Heat pumps are one of the most important technologies that societies need to adopt quickly in order to reduce carbon emissions from heating. This is because they are so efficient. They use electricity to move heat from outdoors to indoors rather than generating it, giving you around 3 units of heat for every 1 unit of electricity used.

Judging by the response to the heat pump tweet, people clearly think he could be a good face for the technology, so I would say to him that if he is looking for a new cause to get behind, I know the people he can talk to.

Munsell: That’s a great message. If I may add one more thing: Mr. Clooney, Canary Media is a nonprofit newsroom covering the clean energy transition, and we’re always looking for generous donors.

***

Silverline Communications, the supporter of this column, is a climatetech and ESG communications firm with deep experience in all facets of the clean economy. Learn more about how Silverline connects clients with stakeholders on social channels and beyond.

Mike Munsell is director of growth at Canary Media.