3 things EDF Climate Corps taught me about talking energy efficiency

3 things EDF Climate Corps taught me about talking energy efficiency

Communicating the value of energy efficiency isn't easy.

Powering our homes and businesses isn't cheap, and it has profound environmental impacts. The average residential monthly electric bill was more than $110 in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

During the hottest months of the year, home utility bills can spike to several hundred dollars in some regions due to increased need for cooling.

And there's the climate change componenent — homes and commercial buildings account for 12 percent of the United States’ total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA.

This comes from the large amounts of energy required for heating, cooling, lighting and other functions. On the commercial side, green building techniques and retrofits are allowing new and existing buildings to become more energy efficient, but there’s been less traction in the residential sector.

It’s mostly about money. Businesses are better-positioned than homeowners to absorb the high upfront costs of energy efficiency upgrade, hence the discrepancy in efficiency gains.

A new HVAC system typically costs several thousand dollars — an amount many homeowners can’t fork over easily, even if it could mean saving money on their utility bill in the long term.

That's why California's Public Utilities Commission in 2013 approved several pilot programs to remove these economic barriers by helping homeowners finance energy efficiency upgrades.

Jumping into the fray

This summer, I had the opportunity to work on one of these financing pilots with Pacific Gas & Electric as an EDF Climate Corps fellow.

Offered by the Environmental Defense Fund, Climate Corps recruits and trains graduate students and embeds them in organizations to provide expert support for energy efficiency projects.

I came aboard just as PG&E and its partners were finishing locking down the final program details for an innovative on-bill repayment pilot in Central California's Santa Clara, Fresno and Yolo counties aimed at helping mid- to low-income homeowners pay for energy efficiency home upgrades.

Working with PG&E’s financial and local government partners, I spent the summer developing a strategic marketing communication and implementation plan for when the pilot program officially launches next year.

By the end of the summer, I came away with a deeper understanding of the utility industry, energy policy, public-private partnerships and, most important, how to talk effectively about energy efficiency at the state and local level.

Here are the top three lessons I learned about communicating energy efficiency to residential customers:

1. Don't always lead with going green

As much as I wanted to believe that people would choose to have a energy-efficient home out of concern for climate change and other environmental impacts, I realized that they tend to be motivated by more immediate concerns, such as comfort and economy.

A more energy efficient home can make it easier for homeowners to keep their homes cooler during the summer and warmer during the winter, which is particularly attractive for people living in hot areas such as Fresno County, where summer temperatures frequently enter triple digits.

Also, given the current political polarization of climate change, talking about “going green” is a surefire way to turn off certain homeowners who otherwise might be receptive to pursuing an energy upgrade.

2. Beware the 'rebound effect'

Touting the potential financial savings of energy efficiency projects sounds like a good strategy — making the business case for sustainability and all — but it can be dangerous due to a phenomenon called the “rebound effect.”

This refers to what happens when net energy consumption actually increases after an energy efficiency upgrade, potentially nullifying any environmental benefits.

Unlike commercial buildings, where energy use can be guided by a facility manager, homeowner energy use is a lot less predictable.

The “feeling” of having a more energy efficient home can make homeowners more prone to engaging in energy-wasting behavior. After installing a new HVAC system, for example, the homeowner may run the air conditioning on high all day, even if they used it less previously.

A more effective message is telling homeowners that an energy efficiency upgrade may make it easier for them to “take control” over their utility bill by making it easier reduce their net energy consumption, as long as their behavior doesn't change radically after the upgrade.

It also might be a good idea to throw in that reducing their energy use will help the system pay for itself much quicker than if they go on an HVAC binge.

3. Capitalize on the already-converted

While visiting with one of PG&E’s non-profit partners in Yolo County, I learned that many homeowners were interested in energy efficiency upgrades. The problem was that they didn’t know that affordable financing options were available.

Simply informing homeowners about financing options for energy efficiency simultaneously can inspire and empower them to act.

As with many incentive and finance programs, many consumers don't use them because they don't know about them. I suppose this isn't so much a communication strategy as it is a reminder that many people don't actually need convincing.

These programs were created to benefit the consumer, and often can sell themselves when all of the information is provided.

The world's 'first fuel'

Although my Climate Corps experience was unique — most fellows work with companies to identify opportunities for energy efficiency upgrades — it allowed me to be part of a national push for energy efficiency, which the International Energy Agency has called the world's “first fuel.”

It isn’t as head-turning as solar panels, wind turbines or even pee-powered toilets, but energy efficiency could be one of the most important tools for reducing fossil fuel use and carbon emissions worldwide.

The cheapest and cleanest power is that which we don’t need to produce in the first place.