Bright ideas bring value to consumer

Local utility companies are increasingly conducting outreach to encourage their customers to use less energy - and they are reaping the benefits in the process.

Local utility companies are increasingly conducting outreach to encourage their customers to use less energy - and they are reaping the benefits in the process.

In 2006, the Gainesville, FL, city commission discovered local energy use was straining available limits. That July, the commission directed Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) to develop an outreach campaign to promote energy conservation, so GRU decided to focus on an achievable idea: promoting the use of compact fluorescent lighting (CFL) bulbs, which offer significant energy savings over regular bulbs.

"This is one of those behavior changes that is kind of like the starting point," says Katherine Weitekamp, a GRU marcomms specialist. If you can get customers to use CFLs, "you can expect that they will have a higher likelihood to make other energy efficient changes in the future."

GRU's team pursued a multi-pronged effort to spread CFLs throughout Gainesville. It held events to give the bulbs away to consumers - while making them sign pledge cards promising they would stay committed to energy efficiency.

The communications team placed stories in local and regional media, who were receptive to the program's green angle. GRU even set up an extensive program to go door-to-door throughout the community, placing CFLs in homes, and partnered with local students to turn the bulb placement into a contest.

The public buys in

The most impactful move, however, was GRU's partnership with The Home Depot to offer CFLs at a reduced price. The utility sent more than 100,000 bill inserts to customers informing them of the deal, and its success was quickly apparent. Customers were bringing the insert into area stores before the program even began, says Maggie Crawford, GRU marketing communication specialist.

An in-store workshop at Home Depot garnered more press coverage, and tapped into a public desire for CFLs that nobody really knew existed.

"It was one of the most amazing things I've seen," says Crawford. "It's lighting, for Pete's sake. You pay for it, but people [ran] up like we were giving away something free. People were buying cases."

Overall, consumers bought almost 40,000 CFLs at Home Depot, and the outreach programs placed close to 4,500 more in homes. GRU plans to use this success as a launch pad to encourage customers to take even more steps to save power. And while the environmental aspect has its appeal, simple economic logic seems to be the main motivator. "The big sell is the money," admits Crawford.

It may seem counterintuitive for energy companies to tout less energy usage. But since most utilities are either government entities, or the subjects of heavy government regulation and incentives, they are often tasked with conservation as one of their mandates. And as "going green" becomes a popular way to do business, the energy industry is becoming an unlikely leader in creative communications strategies that can help save the planet.

Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E), a large California utility, operates under a structure that separates profits from the amount of energy it sells; as such it has been promoting energy efficiency for decades. Environmental communications manager Keely Wachs says PG&E has saved its customers nearly $10 billion through such programs, and prevented 125 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

PG&E has developed numerous well-honed outreach programs over the years. Wachs says earned media is "critical," and notes that current public concern over climate change offers an easy news hook. Like GRU, PG&E uses bill inserts and partnerships with retailers to promote CFL usage.

The bottom line

But simple scale dictates that PG&E can find its largest energy efficiency payoffs in the commercial sector. "A lot of companies want to differentiate their brand or their products by being green," says Wachs. "But bottom line interest is what's driving most commercial entities to adopt energy efficiency programs."

PG&E also uses more creative ideas to highlight the value of energy conservation. Since 2001, it has held an annual "Flex Your Power" awards program publicly honoring large consumers with the best records for efficient use. The company also operates three separate "energy training centers" that offer classes to the public and professionals in fields ranging from food service to heating and cooling, teaching them about advanced energy conservation techniques.

At Con Edison in New York, a dedicated customer outreach team works full-time to keep consumers informed about responsible energy usage - and how it changes depending on the season. Six newsletters a year ensure information is as timely as possible.

"We also meet with over a million people a year at outreach events and community groups," notes Elizabeth Clark, Con Ed media relations associate specialist.

Con Ed also uses its Web site as a warehouse for conservation tips, and as an information center in times of energy crises to keep the public apprised of what they can do. Media outreach in the competitive local market also ensures their message is widely disseminated.

The combination of an increasingly concerned public and a receptive media, with a growing cognizance of the value of energy conservation among all branches of business, arguably means that communications on the issue is only getting easier. Certainly the effort seems to be successfully taking root. GRU's Crawford tells of a consumer's comment after the CFL handout program, "They only gave me 15 CFLs and I needed five more, so I went to Lowe's and bought them."

"That," says Crawford, "is the best feedback we could get."

Spreading the energy conservation message

1. Newsletters and bill inserts are an easy and effective way of reaching the entire customer base with a controlled message

2. Partnerships with retailers and governments can offer special deals to the public to encourage them to try new methods of energy use

3. Global warming is a hot issue among all types of media outlets. Utilities can leverage this to increase pickup of their messages of conservation and savings

4. Teaming with community groups or schools can help bring the message home to hard-to-reach niche audiences

5. Helping customers save money through education, then publicly rewarding them for their behavior, is an effective behavior- reinforcement method

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