Why Isn't the South Green? Or is it?

Everyone is seeking the elusive killer app that will revolutionize energy. Most expect it to be a high tech gadget, or new form of generation or a way to finally store mass quantities of electricity.

Not anthropologist Susan Mazur-Stommen. She’s looking in a completely different place: inside our heads, or more specifically inside the heads of those who live in the Deep South.

Mazur-Stommen, who is the director of behavior and human dimensions for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, is trying to understand how consumers think about energy. Her work has the opposite goal of most consumer research. Rather than finding ways to get us to buy more, she’s looking for ways to get us to buy less, or in short, be more energy efficient.

That’s what brought her last week to the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas, Texas, where she interviewed truckers, as part of a larger research project on everyday use of energy among households, businesses and farms in the Deep South.

It was the last stop in an unusual summer journey to talk to people in small town businesses, upwardly mobile relovilles, farming communities, and poor neighborhoods. Her research took her to Alpharetta, Georgia; Oneonta, Alabama; Corinth, Mississippi; and New Orleans, Louisiana.

What she found was not necessarily what you’d expect.

The South is known for its resistance to green energy, sometimes because of the nature of its local resources, other times because of the nature of its culture.

When American Electric Power a few years ago drew a schema for transmission to carry wind power nationwide, it conspicuously lopped off the southeastern states. Southern states received low rankings for energy efficiency in ACEEE’s annual scorecard released in 2011; Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi were in the bottom ten.

Indeed, while in Mississippi, Mazur-Stommen asked a small town business woman what she thought about energy efficiency. Her answer: “Efficiency? We don’t even have curb-side recycling!”

But that doesn’t mean the South isn’t green.

People are pursuing green in the South, but they are doing it in their own way. That is one of the messages. They don’t trust the government. They don’t trust their utility. They worry about scams,” she said.

What she found was a non-monolithic pursuit of energy efficiency that differed from place to place, one based sometimes on pragmatism and other times on altruism, but apparently not on a desire to keep up with the Jones, as is sometimes the case in California or the Northeast. No ‘cloud of smug’ –South Park’s satire of Prius drivers – hovers over the South.

One aging trucker told Mazur-Stommen that he always keeps his rig tuned and serviced for maximum efficiency, but was quick to add, “I don’t hug trees.” She found air conditioning thermostats set high in upscale homes in Georgia. Egg farmers use LED lights especially designed for laying chickens because of their sensitivity to light; it was a practical not political act. In New Orleans, a grassroots network is bringing an energy consciousness to rebuilding the hurricane-battered city.

“It’s complicated. People want cleaner fuel for health issues,” she said. “One woman said, ‘I don’t want my husband to smell like diesel all the time."

Energy was on people’s minds, said Mazur-Stommen. But they were overwhelmed by the ailing economy. Family-run farms and owner/operator truckers described the burden of government regulation that applied to them, but was more appropriate for larger operations.

“They are feeling like they are being targeted by regulation, and the regulation is inappropriate for their situation and is sometimes aimed at driving them out of business,” she said. “I can’t necessarily say they are wrong.”

Those she interviewed often expressed a strong kinship to faith-based institutions. She believes such institutions could prove to be better purveyors of energy efficiency in the South than government agencies and utilities – objects of distrust.

The bottom line is that the messaging needs to be different in the South when it comes to energy efficiency than in many other parts of the country, she said. “You have to get into the complexities rather than just assuming that people are anti-environmental. It is branding. ‘I don’t want to be a tree hugger but I want to do the right thing.’ There is a certain side of environmentalism that people don’t want to get into, but they want to burn cleaner fuels.”

Watch for Mazur-Stommen’s full report on the Deep South, which will be released through ACEEE in late 2012.

(Author’s note: This blog is dedicated to Lisa Perea Hane, a very dear friend who passed away this week. Lisa was a native of South Carolina, who embodied southern graciousness and wit, and never abandoned her lilting “Y’all” despite many years away from home.)

Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose free newsletter on energy efficiency is available at RealEnergyWriters.com

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Tags: ACEEE, efficiency, energy, green

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Comment by Avery Ray Colter on September 27, 2012 at 9:38pm

Well I do know this. My wife and I, just for kicks, watched the opening episode of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. At one point, they all jumped on ATVs and the kid, narrating, explained that they were headed to their local shopping center. Well they're going through the woods on a dirt road. What the heck kind of shopping center is this? Well, it turns out, "our local shopping center" was a lot with common dumpsters, in which some of the other locals had a habit of discarding things which were minimally problematic. "We once found a whole stereo system with only one bad speaker", Honey related. So there you have it, this family which many might dismiss as a gaggle of Adiposian simpletons are reclaimers.

Comment by Robert Riversong on September 4, 2012 at 7:39pm

Melissa said "We strive to keep politics out of this"

What a sad statement that "green" means political to many people. I think that's a direct result of energy industry propaganda and the Faux News so many listen to.

"Green" means caring for the planet that we live on, that sustains us, and that we want to leave intact for our grandchildren. It's an ecological term and has nothing whatsoever to do with politics.

Comment by David Eggleton on September 4, 2012 at 7:34pm

Here are references (and a bad link) to what Melissa mentioned.

Comment by David Eggleton on September 4, 2012 at 7:26pm

"It's not just that the south doesn't trust government; it's more that the south doesn't trust this government."

That's a shame.  In other countries, with different systems and multiple parties, governments have to be formed in the wake of elections held irregularly.  Here, we have the same government, with different administrations and members of Congress, according to the outcomes of head-to-head contests at regular intervals.  It should at all times be the government of, by and for the people, but some of the people now have this other idea that Thomas shared.

Comment by Melissa Baldridge on September 4, 2012 at 11:51am

Great topic, Elisa.  True confession - I'm a Texas-ex, and I have family in the oil and gas business.  My bro listens to Rush Limbaugh and would die before he'd vote Democratic  I lived in Houston for 20 years and worked for an energy (oil and gas) company so I GET the rub.


Even though I live in Colorado now, we RARELY lead in our businesses with "green."  The word is code for lots of different problems that people have - they're uncomfortable in their homes, their bills are too high or they want a safe home for their families.  These are all green-building strategies.  To start promoting a POV about this right out of the gate shows disregard s for our clients and poor sales skills.  THEY tell us what this means to them.  When we listen and help, they're more open to following our suggestions.  We strive to keep politics out of this as it's rarely necessary and can be a turnoff.

There's a super paper out there by Ogilvy & Mather, the ad giant, titled "Bridging the Green Gap," and it ought to be required reading for anyone in the energy-efficiency industry.  At the end of the day, we all want the same things - to be safe and comfortable in our homes and to have them cost less to operate.  We call that "green," but if that's offensive to some people, we stick to helping them with THEIR needs - they can call that whatever they want.

Like Stephen Covey said, "Seek first to understand, THEN be understood."

Comment by Chris Kaiser on September 4, 2012 at 9:49am

Great post Elisa, reminds me of a post I wrote for Triple Pundit a few years ago titled Renewable Energy and the Good Ol Boy.  I've lived in N. GA my whole life and I sell energy efficiency solutions in the Southeast, so I know we have some issues to overcome regarding energy efficiency....

Comment by Robert Riversong on September 4, 2012 at 9:27am

If Susan Mazur-Stommen wants to get into their heads and change the way they think, then she needs to stop describing people as "consumers", as if we were a plague of locusts (which is how we often act), and stop looking for a better "branding" as if energy efficiency is a commercial product that needs to be "sold" to "consumers".

She needs to use language which speaks to the better angels of our nature, and to our common humanity.

Comment by Barbara Smith on September 4, 2012 at 9:23am

NPR Story this morning about heat island effect, and efforts to combat it in Atlanta by planting trees. http://www.npr.org/2012/09/04/160393303/as-temps-rise-cities-combat...

Comment by Thomas Billups on September 4, 2012 at 8:29am

It's not just that the south doesn't trust government; it's more that the south doesn't trust this government. No secret – a major platform of the Obama administration is support of "green" and energy-efficiency policies. This is an area where opponents have tried to block programs, ignored successes, and lauded the failures (i.e. Solyndra).

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