Yes, but who?

I went to the Alliance to Save Energy’s Great Energy Efficiency Day on Capitol Hill yesterday with two questions in mind:

1) Amidst all the money the federal government has allocated in the Stimulus Package for energy efficiency, is there a piece dedicated to consumer education?

2) Given the $5 billion allocation for low-income weatherization projects, does that mean utilities who already offer those programs can allocate that part of their budgets elsewhere? Or does the government expect utilities to actually take on more weatherization projects?

I suppose that’s technically three questions.  And it became apparent in Secretary Chu’s keynote address that I wasn’t going to like the answers.  Bottom line:  it appears the answer to the last two questions is nobody knows.  The devil is in the details and nobody’s paid him a visit yet.

Conservation Services Group, a provider of Home Energy Audits and other EE services for utilities gave a good overview of the realities:  the stimulus allocation represents a 250% increase in the amount of money available for such projects over last year…which means 175,000 new employees are needed for implementation.  And that means businesses like his, if they’re to do the work, need a longer-term commitment from the government to make them comfortable to invest in finding, hiring and training that workforce.  (As it stands, the money is supposed to be spent in the next two years and there’s no promise of any more money to come after that.)  Then there’s the issue of access to capital so businesses like CSG — who will likely be hired by utilities and states to implement these programs — can invest in the materials and staffing they need to make this happen.

The answer to the first question is maddening and frustrating.  I asked it directly of Senator Bingaman, a long-time proponent of energy efficiency legislation and a leader in securing the EE money that’s been allocated in the stimulus package.  His answer was that it’s up to individual businesses to promote energy efficiency.  “I imagine if a solar manufacturer wants to sell his solar panels, he’ll promote the energy efficiency benefits of solar,” he said.

Therein lies the problem.  According to our soon-to-be-released Utility Pulse study, two-thirds of the population thinks their homes are energy efficient just as they are.  Our Energy Pulse 2008 study revealed that 61% of the population doesn’t think they’re using more electricity than they were five years ago, and the number one thing consumers think they should do to make their homes more energy efficient is to replace their windows.

Now, in all deference to our window manufacturing client, windows are often NOT the first thing somebody should replace if they simply seek to be more efficient.  That’s a bit like killing a fly with an anvil. And that’s the problem with relying solely on individual manufacturers to educate consumers about how to be energy efficient.  Window manufacturers will tout the energy savings associated with windows, insulation manufacturers will sell in the savings associated with insulation, appliance manufacturers will tout all the savings associated with new products and so forth.  The end result is that consumers feeel MORE confused about what steps they should take to be efficient.  And in the face of confusion, consumers do nothing.

Utilities have been the independent third party leading this charge, spending millions of dollars to promote energy efficiency — both on the product side and the behavior change side. But some members of yesterday’s session discounted the utility’s role, going so far as to say they shouldn’t be involved in the education of consumers on efficiency.  David Springe, President of the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates said,  “We wouldn’t trust McDonald’s to solve our health care issues or Exxon Mobile to develop electric cars.  Why would we trust utilities to take the lead on conservation – and bribe them with new rate structures – to do something that is fundamentally against what they exist to do:  sell electricity.”

Sigh.

Secretary Chu and Senator Bingaman both made it clear it wasn’t up to the government, and I’ve spelled out the problem with relying on individual manufacturers to take the lead on umbrella efficiency education.  If not the utilities, then who?

About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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