Why doesn’t energy efficiency excite people as much as a Tesla roadster? On the face of it, duh. It’s the brains of it that make it a head-scratcher.

An American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) report released earlier this month ranked the U.S. among the least energy efficient of the world’s largest economies, at 13th overall. (Get the details in Climate Central’s summary.) This despite the fact that earlier ACEEE research found that economic data and the historical record suggest energy efficiency investments “can provide up to one-half of the needed greenhouse gas emissions reductions most scientists say are needed between now and the year 2050″ and “Investments in more energy-productive technologies can also lead to a substantial net energy bill savings for the consumer and for the nation’s businesses.” According to NRDC’s annual energy report, released in October, efficiency contributes more than any other resource toward meeting energy goals, and does so at less expense, saving billions of dollars and preventing millions of tons of carbon emissions.

In other words, energy efficiency is probably the single most effective greenhouse gas reduction strategy we have, and it saves you money. What’s not to get excited about?

Unfortunately, energy efficiency just isn’t sexy. Climate pundits have been lamenting this for some time: energy efficiency is the granny panties of the green economy. Many see the solution in language—what we need is a new term, one less evocative of slide rules and more inspirational. I’m all for optimal naming, but we need to look at the total package.

Energy efficiency faces two obstacles that strike me as more serious than its nerdy name: invisibility and implausibility. The beauty and the downfall of many energy efficiency measures is that they work in the background, without anyone being aware that they’re happening. And the potential savings from these measures often inspire skepticism more than any other reaction—people think that if a solution like that really were effective, it would already be standard practice. That assumption ignores the powerful forces of inertia and the culture of heedless consumption: most Americans haven’t worried much about saving energy because we haven’t had to.

When our own clients have faced this barrier, we’ve advocated “show, don’t tell” strategies. People need to see energy efficiency in action, and what they see has to be alluring, mesmerizing or at least moderately cool (to the intended audience, of course). There are many potential paths to this effect. The Nest thermostat is a great example of sexiness through design. The opposite of Nest’s chic minimalism could also be a winning strategy: show the energy efficiency happening through web interfaces, tickers, texts from your tires, whatever. Energy efficiency messengers and messages are also crying out to be amped up and taken out of the granny panties zone.

Will energy efficiency ever make our spines tingle? Maybe not (barring an electrical accident). But it can at least be made visible—and worth looking at.

Article by Sandra Stewart, a principal at Thinkshift Communications, which provides brand storytelling, messaging, PR and other strategic marketing services to cleantech and sustainable businesses.


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  1. Nice article. That the U.S. is among the least energy efficient is tragedy and opportunity. The problem reminds me of my experience marketing security systems: the value lies in things that don’t happen. This leads to tortured exercises in calculating “avoided costs” for prospective buyers. So not sexy.

    Disconnect.me has done a good job with it’s browser plugin showing you how many services connect to your browser every time you land on a website. It then allows you to permit or prevent them from occurring. It’s a clever little continuous reminder that I know the folks at Nirandfar.com, author of Hooked, would agree, is the way adoption of hidden value happens. Nir Eyal says a user has to experience 9x improvement over their existing situation to adopt, among other things. What’s that hurdle with energy?

    How about a home battery backup charged by a solar system which charges an affordable Tesla at night while powering the home during the day. PG&E becomes a backup system. Efficiency becomes integral with this iPhone on steroids solution. Instead of watching just my gas pedal to optimize my MPG in my Prius, I’m using efficiency to make sure I never pay PG&E for anything but the monthly backup charge. Now that’s an app I’m looking forward to having.

    Can’t wait.