Energy groups tout 'efficient' message

Energy companies are shunning "conservation" in outreach efforts amid current power failures

Energy companies are shunning "conservation" in outreach efforts amid current power failures

As both California and Queens, NY, suffer from power outages, communications experts stress that money and efficiency are the buzzwords in energy advocates' year-long conservation efforts.

After an early summer when temperatures skyrocketed but energy crises were averted, California now stands at the brink of a spate of rolling blackouts. The Reuters headline last Monday screamed: "California could see blackouts without conservation."

While energy companies did their best to reach out to constituents and manage crisis communications, the year-long energy efficiency campaign rolled on. Just don't call it conservation.

"The message of energy conservation does not work well with consumers," says Rozanne Weissman, communications and marketing director for the Alliance to Save Energy (ASE), referring to 1997 and 2002 research that found the term "conservation" reminded people of the Carter Administration's message to turn thermostats down. Instead, the buzzword is efficiency.

"If you buy a more energy-efficient washing machine, you're conserving without having do anything further," Weissman says. It's all about promoting smart choices, she adds.

Jim Owen, director of media relations for the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the organization representing shareholder-owned electric companies, also equated conservation with Carter.

"It conjures up some outdated imagery whereas efficiency seems cool or more hip," Owen says. "Efficiency is compact fluorescent light bulb, programmable thermostats, and hybrid-electric cars."

Messaging nuances aside, Americans are conserving, even if many don't like the word.

EEI research in March 2006 found that 82% of customers, when asked, overwhelmingly say they are taking steps to reduce use of electricity.

Laura Horsley, Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) director of communications, said that BOMA has held seminars across the country with over 3,000 participants, learning about low-cost or no-cost ways to conserve energy.

Weissman says money is the greatest motivator of smart energy use.

"Ultimately what seems to work is the money message," Weissman says. "Money is a great inducement" for energy efficiency.

"Our world is driven by money, and it is always going to be the bottom line," says Craig Sheehy, director of property management for Thomas Properties Group and the new head of BOMA's energy efficiency program, BEEP.

Sheehy says BOMA's outreach is somewhat problematic because it has to convince owners to implement policies that will likely benefit tenants more and, it being a sellers' market, few building owners have been interested in making extensive, long-term investments in their buildings.

Sheehy says that BOMA's message is focused on tenant retention because attracting new tenants is a huge operating cost.

Owen observes that while this week's crises require a slightly more urgent message, yearly campaigns can focus on small steps.

"You don't want to tell customers who are faced with the possibility of losing power that now's the time to get thermal windows," he says. "But the small things like changing the filters in the furnace add up."

In his work with Thomas, Sheehy has begun building green properties that take a holistic approach to energy efficiency. The first one he built was for the California Environmental Protection Agency.

"Energy efficiency is my easiest way. It's a low-hanging fruit in achieving a green building," Sheehy says.

He says the results exceeded his wildest projections. By using a day-time janitor, the agency will save $100,000 a year in energy. By changing the stairwell lighting, the organization saved $30,000. Switching elevator light switches to light emitting diodes (LEDs) saved $16,000.

"All we've done there were mostly small nickel-and-dime things," Sheehy says.

And it's not just Americans getting involved in conservation. Sheehy has a Dubai sheik client who, wary of making money from a dwindling resource, is now involved in tourism. Despite the fact that he's made his money from big, bad oil, his top priority for future resorts is energy efficiency.

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