How Can We Get More Americans to Make Energy-Efficient Home Improvements?
The U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory released an Oct. 12 report examining a question that we at the Alliance work to answer daily: How can we persuade the American public to invest in energy efficiency? From the Alliance's perspective, the answer should be a no-brainer: Energy efficiency tends to pay for itself, saving consumers money over time. Yet, most homeowners don't buy into the idea that the easiest place to save money is their monthly energy bills.
To find out what really motivates consumers to save energy, Berkeley Lab researchers examined more than a dozen residential energy efficiency programs and identified the best program design, implementation and evaluation approaches.
Information is not enough
The average U.S. household spends $180 per month almost $2,200 a year on energy bills. For cash-strapped American households, energy efficiency would be an easy way to save money. But giving out information is not enough to get people to act, according to the Berkeley Lab report. In fact, the report found that consumers who strongly support energy conservation are no more likely than the average person to actually save energy, even if given more information. So how, during these tough economic times, do we convince Americans that investing in energy efficiency home improvements is a better, worthwhile, financially smart decision for their household?
Find What Resonates
The report argues that programs must find what matters to the typical American and discuss energy efficiency in those terms. Even people who don't believe in climate change care about saving money, increasing comfort, improving their health and ensuring U.S. energy security. This finding reflects an October New York Times piece, In Kansas, Climate Skeptics Embrace Cleaner Energy, which shows that Americans continue to question the existence of human-caused climate change:
Only 48 percent of people in the Midwest agree with the statement that there is solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer, a poll conducted in the fall of 2009 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed far fewer than in other regions of the country.
The article describes a nonprofit organization in Kansas that got Kansans who don't necessarily believe or worry about climate change to cut their energy use by as much as 5 percent. They did it by speaking to the residents basic concerns:
Many lamented the nation's dependence on foreign oil. Some articulated an amorphous desire, often based in religious values, to protect the earth. Some even spoke of changes in the natural world - birds arriving weeks earlier in the spring than they had before...
The example speaks to another suggestion in the Berkeley Lab report of relying on a trusted messenger, such as alocal group, in discussing energy efficiency. The report also notes that consumers are motivated through programs that involve competition with their neighbors or that stress community engagement.
Use Words Consumers Already Know
A lot of us in Washington throw around acronyms and jargon, forgetting how to speak to the public. We use terms like building envelope, peak load, procurement and recommissioning. The Berkeley Lab report reminds us that we must use ordinary language to sell consumers on energy efficiency.
For instance, words like "retrofit" and "audit" aren't everyday words for the American public. So, we should say home energy "improvements" or "upgrades" instead of retrofits, and energy "assessments" instead of audits.
Get in Bed with Contractors
The Berkeley Lab report makes an often overlooked point that contractors are the ultimate salespeople for energy efficiency. So, energy efficiency programs should cooperate closely with the actual "boots on the ground." Supporting this point, Karen Barnes from the Shelton Group tells a story about how her parents learned to replace an old furnace:
The contractor was their main source of information about what unit to purchase, what rebates and incentives were available and how best to use their new equipment.
They didn't go to a big box home improvement store. They didn't look on the web. They didn't ask their friends. They asked Tim.
Of course, undertrained, unreliable and incompetent contractors can ruin a worthwhile program's ability to attract new participants and save energy, as a story on a botched weatherization in Alabama demonstrates.
Building Trust for Efficiency
Ultimately, the Berkeley Lab report tells us what we already know: To help Americans save energy, they need to hear about efficiency from sources they trust, in words they understand, about topics they care about. In Washington, we trust our academic peers and are comfortable speaking in cold rationality.
Elsewhere in America, people are more likely to believe their neighbors and contractors than intangible savings estimates, and to speak in words deeply rooted in personal experience.
Building trust in energy efficiency may take as many different approaches as there are cultures in our country. What works in one place may not in others, so we need to tailor support for each place.