A recent study by the marketing firm KSV found that 86 percent of homeowners believe energy efficiency will make the world better. But the same study found that fewer than half of the respondents invested in energy efficiency measures. Why is that?
The Hawthorn Group’s own research is consistent with these findings, and I believe goes further into what customers know and believe about energy efficiency as well as other energy-related consumer issues.
A national poll we sponsored earlier this year, not surprisingly, showed that the number one issue on consumers’ minds is jobs and the economy. Issues such as energy choice, energy efficiency, renewables and climate change are rarely mentioned. Yet when asked specifically, consumers favor energy efficiency measures, increased use of renewables and actions to combat climate change. But only as long as the consumer doesn’t have to pay for these actions.
Other research confirms that consumers are willing to support energy efficiency as long as it doesn’t increase their power bills, the cost of appliances or home improvements, or cause them any personal inconvenience. In fact, the principal reason consumers give for supporting energy efficiency is to lower their monthly bills rather than to reduce overall energy use or to temper future demand for power. Similar cost reduction reasons are given for use of solar distributed generation. In one state, the No. 1 reason for personal use of solar is to save money by “getting off the grid” and to be independent of their utility company, when solar actually makes a consumer doubly dependent on the grid.
Indeed, data shows that consumers really don’t know what energy efficiency is, despite extensive communication efforts by utilities and government agencies over many years. Customers of one large utility claimed budget billing as their first choice for an energy efficiency program, when budget billing has nothing to do with efficiency and may actually drive higher energy usage. In another state, unplugging appliances was the top choice for efficiency.
Clearly there is a gap between what consumers know and what utilities and state agencies want and need them to know. Consequently companies and state regulatory commissions need to work together to provide consumers with straight-forward information on what energy efficiency is and isn’t, how it works and how it will ultimately save customers money and, by the way, benefit the environment.
In today’s challenging political and policy environment, utilities cannot afford to treat energy efficiency as a stand-alone effort. Rather communication on efficiency should be part of a research-based integrated plan designed to engage consumers in an overall conversation about the responsibility their utility has in providing reliable, affordable electricity and support services as well as how consumers and their utility can work together to meet consumer needs. Consumer interest and support is already there for energy efficiency programs, and the messages can foster greater understanding and a stronger bond between consumers and their utility. And it will improve favorability of both companies and regulators.
Without such mutual engagement, consumers will remain confused. Public support for the wrong reasons can result in flawed energy policies leading eventually to the consumers feeling misled and mistrusting of utilities and commissions.
John Ashford is chairman and CEO of The Hawthorn Group, a public affairs and strategic communications firm based in Alexandria, VA, specializing in electricity and energy policy issues.
Via Intelligent Utility