The Trouble with Energy Conservation

by May 15, 2019

Shelton Stat of the Week

62% of Americans say it’s important/very important that their utility generate or purchase at least some portion of their power from renewable sources like wind and solar (Energy Pulse 2018).

The Trouble with Energy Conservation

For years, utilities have been asking their customers to conserve energy. As you might imagine, this fundamentally doesn’t make sense to customers. I recently heard someone in a focus group say, “Coca-Cola doesn’t ask me to drink less of their product … why does the utility want me to use less of theirs?”

Despite that, customers are grateful for utility conservation programs. In our Pulse studies we consistently see that people who know about utility energy efficiency programs, regardless of whether or not they’ve participated in them, are more satisfied with their utility than those who don’t know about them. And if they have participated in the rebate programs, it makes them “stickier” – they’re less likely to “leave” a utility who has actually given them money to conserve energy. (Note that “leaving” one’s utility means anything from buying from Google or Amazon if they were suddenly able to sell electrons to simply buying power management tools from someone other than their utility.)

The issue, though, is two-fold:

  • When we ask people to conserve energy, we’re asking them to give something up. Behavioral scientists will tell you this presents a loss aversion problem. As humans, it literally pains us to give things up. Particularly things that give us comfort, like setting the thermostat to whatever temperature we want.
  • Asking people to use less energy is akin to telling them there’s something wrong with it. Think about it – most things we’re asked to give up or do less of are bad for us or bad for society, like extra calories or screen time. And until recently – and still in some parts of the country – electricity generation WAS bad for the environment and bad for people’s health. But as we’re rapidly decarbonizing the grid and minimizing coal, electricity is actually now the better choice than other options, like gasoline, propane and natural gas used on its own (yes, there’s still a lot of natural gas on the grid).

So what do we do with this from a messaging standpoint? Flip it around and leverage it.

  1. Utilities should immediately reposition themselves as the leaders of a decarbonized future. Now, of course, this means utilities actually have to BE that – you can’t just say it. But many are headed in this direction. So own it, claim it. Be the leader and tell the world you’re the leader. Stop running ads that say, “We power your life” or some variation; run ads that say, “We power a bright future” or “We’re leading the way to a clean, comfortable future.”
  2. Stop framing energy efficiency programs as saving energy/conserving energy/giving up energy. Frame them as control mechanisms. Tell people they get to be the boss of their energy bills, they get to maximize their comfort without giving anything up, and they get to set a good example for their kids (each of those messages is a winner with three of our personas in our energy segmentation system, by the way). And, better, pull them into your efforts. Once you’ve established your leadership on a clean energy future, invoke them to join you. Turn clean energy and energy efficiency into a social movement that your community is doing together. (See our support of the amazing work Duke Energy, the City of Asheville, and Buncombe County are doing for how this approach can work – they’ve been able to scrap plans to build an additional gas-fired power plant in 2023 as a result of this community-based approach.)

Bottom line: Stop talking about giving up energy. Start talking about creating a future we all want.

A Period of Change

Once upon a time, feminine hygiene was a topic simply not mentioned in polite society – and options were limited to an aisle of single-use products. Now, times are changing, and the options have grown. What once seemed like a segment of the consumer packaged goods industry impervious to change is now undergoing profound transformation. New, reusable choices are flooding the market – choices that are better for the environment and, in most cases, work better too. Fifty-nine percent of women have used or considered using them – what will that do to your business?

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

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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