The Marriage of Education and Legislation

The Marriage of Education and Legislation

I’m not alone in comparing the energy efficiency/green movement to past movements like anti-smoking, anti-littering or pro-recycling.  I heard the comparison articulated very well yesterday at the Esource Utility Marketing Conference by Roger Woodworth, VP of Business Development & Service Optimization with Avista Utilities.

Roger did a nice job of chronicling the paradigm shift about smoking from modern day cigarette packs warning of a slow and painful death all the way back to ‘50s-era advertising proclaiming, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other brand.”  We’ve made a tremendous paradigm shift in the last 50 years.

But the shift hasn’t come from education alone.  It’s nearly impossible to smoke anywhere but your own home anymore thanks to a plethora of state and local laws.  Now energy is following suit.  Beyond the federal cap and trade/carbon tax legislation being explored (more on that below), state and local governments are getting in on the action in a way that makes sense and is fair to everyone.

According to an article in Monday’s USA Today, Colorado, New Jersey, California, Hawaii and New Mexico are all putting legislation in place that requires builders to make solar electricity and/or water heating an option on new homes.  Here’s what makes it fair:

  • Since it’s a standard, it doesn’t eliminate any competitive advantage one builder has over another – it’s something they’ll all have to do.
  • Consumers can choose the solar option just like they would choose a countertop upgrade at the time of construction, which means the added cost would be rolled up into the mortgage, making it much more affordable from a monthly cash outlay perspective.

Legislation like this – or like making ENERGY STAR® for Homes the building code standard – is what’s sorely needed to drive the energy conservation movement forward.  It makes it easy and cost-effective for consumers, and that’s always what wins.

Now, back to the smoking parallel again:  additional taxes on cigarettes may motivate some consumers to quit, just as additional taxes on carbon may cause consumers to use less energy.  But just as smoking is an addiction that isn’t as easy to quit as it might seem, getting Americans to be more energy efficient isn’t as easy as it might seem either.  Roughly 2/3 of the existing housing stock in our country is over 20 years old, which means most of it is terribly inefficient.  Upgrading those homes with new insulation and higher efficiency HVAC units will be expensive.  The stimulus package will help folks who fall in the very low income category…but what about those in the low-middle income category?  They’ll be living in inefficient homes, with higher utility bills (due to the carbon legislation) and no way to pay for the upgrades or the bills.  The only way this works in my mind is if the money collected via carbon taxes is put in a pool for middle-class Americans to make free efficiency upgrades to their homes.  Alas, I don’t have that kind of faith in our legislators.

Let’s seek legislation that’s fair to everyone and easy for everyone.  That – along with some strong consumer education – is the real way to create positive change.

About the Author

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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