How Do We Make Energy Efficiency Sexy, or at Least Interesting?

I was reading my local newspaper and a photo showing a man and his electric bill caught my attention. His electric bill was more than $7,000. Was this a case of a power company screwing over a customer, I wondered? Then I read the story. It got more interesting.

The man's $7,228 bill was for a whole year. He had recently had installed several kW worth of PV panels on his roof, and the utility was sending him a statement every month letting him know how much electricity he produced and how much he used. The yearly billing was a “true-up” and represented his net electricity use over the course of the year. Mystery partially solved, but still—$7,228 is a lot of money for a man on a fixed income, and especially when he has PV pumping juice into his house on sunny days in sunny California.

The man was getting a bill for about $35 every month, but that was for his gas use, not electricity. The monthly statement about his PV production and electricity use that he got had “Not a Bill” written on the top of it, and he ignored it, because he isn’t interested in the details.

The people who installed his PV system did a thorough study of the man’s electricity use and designed the system to offset about $200 per month of his electricity use—but that was before the man installed a 28 foot x 32 foot swimming pool in his back yard and heated it to 85 0F, so he could do what his doctor ordered—soak in hot water every day. All the electricity produced by the PV panels, and more, was going to heating the water in his pool. The man thought that the PV was taking care of all his electrical needs, and all he saw when he opened his monthly electric bill was “Not a Bill” along the top.

I am not mentioning the man’s name or even the newspaper that carried his story. I’m sure the poor guy is plenty embarrassed. But that’s not the point. I once locked my keys in my car with the engine running and went to a 2-hour lecture. We all do dumb things that don’t get into the newspaper, thank Goodness.

I think the man’s story illustrates a problem we have as supporters of energy efficiency. Most people don’t think about their electricity use but once a month, if at all, when they get their bill. And lately many people think of PV power as the answer to all of our energy problems. PV is sexy right now. But despite what the President said a few years ago about insulation being sexy, energy efficiency, something invisible to most utility customers, just isn’t sexy.

Lots of people are working on the issue. A builder I talked with recently is using quick energy audits and education to get people to pay for retrofits, and is getting some good results. (You’ll read about it in Home Energy sometime next year.) Matt Golden with the Investor Confidence Project is trying to make financing for energy upgrades a routine matter for banks, investors, contractors and homeowners. Debra Little, a home appraiser and sustainable design consultant, and others are working hard to see that energy efficiency is counted among the homes features when a home is listed for sale. People associated with the Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change are thinking a lot about it, and so are universities and National Labs. A college classmate, Cindy Ojczyk, is showing people how homes can be energy efficient and beautiful. And there is more being done.

How about you, reader? Do you know of ways to make energy efficiency sexy, or at least interesting? If so, please tell us.

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Great updates on the utility of PV panels! I think the decision of installing photovoltaic cell panels basically matters with location The amount of sunlight as determined by the climate of one's location and the ability to receive the direct rays of the sun.

Large bill,  but keep in mind he also spent $$$ on a pool.  Along the way there were multiple times that he was probably provide information on operating costs and possible generation capacity of the solar systems.  Most states want solar surveys done - and you can generally forecast with about 5%-10% what the production over a year will be.  The pool people should have a similar capability, as should companies providing weatherization and improvements.   If you can't tell the customers a reasonable range for savings - AND KNOW you will be in the range or exceed the savings -- then the auditing job was not complete and you missed important cost drivers.

As for the high bill - I am sure if he sat down and looked at the estimates (provided they were given to him) that he'd known that he would have a large bill at the end of the year.  But the owner wasn't a detail person - tracking progress and asking why wasn't there until he had the bill shock.  For some people that is what it takes.

Perhaps - in addition to bringing in real estate appraisers up to speed and valuing energy efficiency improvements -- maybe we need to make sure financial planners and accountants can help ask the correct questions and understand benefits of energy efficiency as well as the renewable programs.

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