How to make energy efficiency an easy sell

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Energy efficiency is one of the most cost-effective, easy and rapid ways to reduce energy consumption and emissions. Efficiency gains can be measured through software tools, sensor networks and predictive analytics.

Yet when you talk to people in the efficiency industry, they invariably complain that people don't pay attention to efficiency measures and tools.

This remains a chief paradox of the sustainability industry. Don't get me wrong: Efficiency advocates have achieved a lot over the last several decades. Art Rosenfeld's efforts starting in the mid-1970s have helped save millions of dollars and converted appliance makers from being hostile to the concept of energy efficiency to seeing it as a selling point. And there's plenty of room to grow. Solid-state lighting in the U.S. alone could reduce power consumption by the same amount that would be produced by nearly 50 nuclear plants by 2030.

Nonetheless, efficiency measures often get stuck in the rut between good intentions and action. Why?

Why energy efficiency is a hard sell

The first and most obvious reason is that efficiency is still sold like insurance or vitamins: "You should do it." "It's good for you." "Wouldn't a colonoscopy be worse?" To promote efficiency, vendors need to brush up their sales pitch.

But once you cross the excitement hurdle, you start to see another complaint from customers -- namely, that it remains difficult to prove that efficiency measures work. Historically, efficiency companies have been forced to prove a negative: You saved money, but it's impossible to prove that our measures actually caused the reduction. The number of lawsuits filed against energy service companies in the past year demonstrate that not everyone is happy with the results. Improved auditing tools are helping to ameliorate this problem, but it remains an issue.

Energy efficiency vendors also often gloss over the challenges. "Energy efficiency is not easy," said Marcus Wilcox, CEO of Cascade Energy, which helps industrial and cold storage sites curb power. "It takes a sustained effort."

Another problem? Even for energy-intensive customers, energy is not always a major concern. "It can be a third-, fourth- or even fifth-level concern," Wilcox said.

Hope for the future

Interestingly, this last problem -- that energy is often not a pressing concern -- provides the best hope for change. Efficiency never will be completely exciting or measureable. But the "other" benefits are unexpected and often can far outweigh kilowatt hours saved. 

Several studies, for instance, show that green office spaces fetch higher rental rates than ordinary office space, and that rental rates directly improve the capital value of commercial buildings. If you can reduce energy costs by $10,000 a year, it can raise the value of the property by $100,000 to $140,000.

Dianna Berry, asset manager at Colliers International, who spoke at the GreenBiz VERGE event in October, said that efficiency helped reduce tenant churn at one of her projects. 

Efficiency also can conserve space. ValidusDC, which produces technology for reducing power in data centers, can cut power by 10 to 15 percent. That's a tremendous gain in efficiency, but company execs say that their clients actually discover a bigger benefit after the system gets installed: DC power helps reduce the square footage needed for server racks and other equipment by 25 to 40 percent. The savings in space far exceed the savings in energy.

Then there is the "comfort" factor. Employees, hotel guests and others all want to be comfortable. Comfort is impossible to quantify and it varies from person to person, but when you see a woman wearing a Snuggie at work in the middle of July because of a hyperactive air conditioner, you know you've got a disgruntled employee.

Lee Rhoades, COO of lighting manufacturer BARO North America, recently provided an interesting example of the intangibles of efficiency. The company retrofitted a discount grocery store in the Midwest. The idea was to save energy while also improving the store's atmosphere. A few months after the installation, the store owner approached a longtime customer. She said she had shopped at the store for 20 years and always left as soon as she could. She couldn't stand being there, she said. Until recently.

"I don't know what it is," she said. "But now I kind of wander the aisles."

This example goes to show that perhaps the best way to sell energy efficiency may be not to talk about it at all.

LED lights photo by DK.samco via Shutterstock