Sandra Stewart | May 28, 2010
Why don’t energy efficiency technologies and strategies get people as excited as a Tesla roadster? On the face of it, duh. It’s the brains of it that make it a head-scratcher.
As the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy reported last year, economic data and the historical record suggest that “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.” 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? Are people that distracted by bright shiny objects?
Yes, we are. Advocates have been lamenting the unsexiness of energy efficiency for some time: it’s 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 motivating, send-the-right-message language—that would typically be my go-to solution. But I think what we need here is something more physical.
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—remember how President Obama’s campaign opponents mocked him for suggesting proper tire inflation as a way to save gas?
People think that if a solution like that really were effective, it would already be standard practice—someone would have told us about it already. 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—even the simplest strategies are easily missed if you’re not looking for them), but it’s powerful nonetheless.
I suspect that we need to make energy consumption a thing: people need to be able to see it happening. It has to come out of the background and be made concrete through web interfaces, dials, beeps, texts from your tires, whatever. That might compromise design simplicity (another efficiency value), or even slightly reduce energy savings, but what’s more effective—a theoretically perfect solution that few use, or something a bit too tricked out that gains mass acceptance?
It may pay to remember that out of sight often means out of mind.