Bringing both sides for conservation

Light bulb with dollar sign


Kai Ryssdal: There are academic studies on pretty much every topic you can imagine released all the time. Most fade into the relative obscurity of one journal or another -- but there is occasionally research that catches on with the mainstream media. One such example came out of UCLA a couple of months ago, about a program aimed at inspiring people to save energy. "Nudges Gone Wrong" was a typical headline about it. Researchers found that some conservatives, as in political conservatives, didn't respond all that well to a little noodging from their power company to conserve -- and that got our sustainability reporter Sarah Gardner thinking.

Sarah Gardner: Thinking, specifically, about the politics of conservation. But first, that UCLA study. Economists analyzed a group of utility customers who were getting regular notices from their power company comparing their energy use with similar households. See, behavioral psychologists have convinced utilities that if customers can compare their kilowatt hours to their neighbors, they'll want to "keep up with the Joneses..." Turns out that's not always true.

Patrick Michaels: I'm absolutely unsurprised by this result.

That's Patrick Michaels, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. He shrugged at the study's results that show "nudging" ended up reducing energy consumption by a little, 1 to 2 percent. But here's the real headline: Some Republican households responded by using more power.

Michaels: If you tell a class of grade schoolers, "no talking right now," I guarantee you somebody's going to talk. This is not quite as command-and-control as that, but it is a little bit paternalistic on the part of the energy companies.

Paternalistic. Big Brother. Intrusive. Jim DiPeso is director of Republicans for Environmental Protection. He says it's understandable that some in his party could view utility nudging in that light. He says the Republicans who cranked up the air conditioning even more, post-nudge, may have been making a statement. But that doesn't mean they're not interested in saving energy.

Jim DiPeso: Conservation is conservative. The two words come from the same root, and the ethic of true conservatism is to conserve, to save, to be prudent, to be a good steward. And how we got onto this idea that somehow conservation is not conservative is just mind-boggling.

DiPeso says energy conservation started getting a bad rap in this country back in the 1970s.

DiPeso: I think the word "energy conservation" for some people may bring to mind an image of a scowling Jimmy Carter sitting in the White House with a sweater and telling us all to shiver and turn the lights off.

Well, President Carter didn't say to shiver exactly.

Then-President Jimmy Carter: And I'm asking you to take no unnecessary trips, to use car pools or public transportation whenever you can and to set your thermostats to save fuel.

DiPeso says the idea of energy cutbacks doesn't easily fit in with America's culture of freedom and enterprise.

DiPeso: But what we can do is we can have all these benefits, we can have all this abundance and prosperity, but we don't have to do it with so much waste, we don't have to do it with so much depletion of our natural capital and I think that's a point of common ground that Republicans and Democrats can come together on.

In other words, an energy-saving light bulb is neither liberal nor conservative. It's just a smart investment. But environmental historian Paul Sabin at Yale University says political attitudes are also shaped by how you define the problem. Liberals, like Jimmy Carter, perceived an energy shortage. Conservatives like his successor, Ronald Reagan, saw untapped markets.

Paul Sabin: If you don't believe there's a fundamental scarcity of energy, then energy conservation by itself can be seen as more of a personal decision, a values decision as opposed to a social imperative.

Cue Vice President Dick Cheney in 2001, when he said energy conservation might be a sign of "personal virtue" but no basis for a sound energy policy. Still energy conservation and efficiency are widely regarded as the low-hanging fruit for cutting fossil fuel consumption.

Jim Dipeso says utilities that want to nudge more conservative customers into conserving should forget those neighbor-to-neighbor comparisons and talk bottom lines.

DiPeso: If you save energy, you'll have more money to spend on things that you really enjoy -- unless you really truly enjoy sending money to your friendly utility.

You can count on that message getting a bipartisan reaction.

I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk covering sustainability news spots and features.
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How To Reduce Your Energy Bills / Energy Conservation Begins at Home

Imagine leaving a window open all winter long -- the heat loss, cold drafts and wasted energy! If your home has a folding attic stair, a whole house fan or AC Return, a fireplace or a clothes dryer, that may be just what is occurring in your home every day.

These often overlooked sources of energy loss and air leakage can cause heat and AC to pour out and the outside air to rush in -- costing you higher energy bills.

But what can you do about the four largest “holes” in your home -- the folding attic stair, the whole house fan or AC return, the fireplace, and the clothes dryer?

To learn more visit www.batticdoor.com

Mark D. Tyrol is a Professional Engineer specializing in cause and origin of construction defects. He developed several residential energy conservation products including an attic stair cover and an attic access door. Battic Door is the US distributor of the fireplace plug.

How did the utility compaines know that the households were Republican?

Now for the version of this story targeting liberals…

The Wall Street Journal ran a similar story on 2/13/10 about how residents in Boulder, CO (arguably as politically left-leaning a town as Berkeley, CA unless that has dramatically changed since I attended CU ten years ago) talked a big game but were ultimately unwilling to conserve energy despite financial incentives offered by the city council and an intense publicity campaign.

“City officials never dreamed they'd have to play nanny when they set out in 2006 to make Boulder a role model in the fight against global warming. The cause seemed like a natural fit in a place where residents tend to be politically liberal and passionate about the great outdoors.

Instead, as Congress considers how to encourage Americans to conserve more energy, Boulder stands as a cautionary tale about the limits of good intentions.

"What we've found is that for the vast majority of people, it's exceedingly difficult to get them to do much of anything," says Kevin Doran, a senior research fellow at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Story can be found at: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142405274870432010457501592099284533...

The key is providing consumers with information and empowering them with tools and pricing options for automated, convenient energy management - and savings. There's a lot more literature on consumers responding to these programs, and with much more significant reductions. See, for example, results of the PowerCentsDC, "Smart Grid Washington" program at www.powercentsdc.org.

If you really want to know how your house uses energy and what you can do about it, just check out Georgia Power's latest online tool: www.georgiapower.com

Eventually the fossil fuel joyride will be over, starting with oil. The long-term strategy is to gain as much energy conservation as possible while preparing for the eventual arrival of a world with depleted coal, oil and gas reserves. Once that happens, the price of energy (and getting products to market) will undoubtedly rise dramatically, causing substantial inflation. Prepare now, and be ready for tomorrow.

Fourteen years ago my wife and I set out to largely sever our dependency on fossil fuels, at least directly when it comes to burning them to make electricity or heat our home. Today, thanks to conservation (and energy efficiency) -- from line-drying laundry to ENERGY STAR appliances -- we've nearly halved our energy use. Then we added renewable energy systems. Today, much of the money we would have paid to our utility went to pay off our mortgage, early. We learned to conserve, as in nature, where there is no waste. Life can be conservatively abundant, as we write about in ECOPRENEURING.

Reducing energy use by 1 to 2 percent may seem insignificant, but it is not. It can mean avoiding the need to build another power plant, which saves everyone money for the capital cost of that power plant. More importantly, on a really hot day, that 1 or 2 percent can mean the difference between sufficient power for everyone and rolling blackouts for some.

The idea that political conservatives would become profligate in their energy use simply to spite utilities for encouraging lower power consumption seems, well . . . absurd. Setting aside the virtues of using less, understanding how individual energy use compares to similar households is an excellent way to learn whether hard-earned dollars are going up in smoke when they could be easily saved through an extra layer of insulation or more efficient refrigerator. Here's a site that provides an easy way to become more informed about individual power consumption:


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