Moving Beyond Passive Energy Consumers

Old habits are hard to break.  One of the oldest is being a passive energy consumer.  We flip the switch and the lights come on every time.  We get a bill each month that represents the average cost of serving our customer class.  Then we use the budget plan that averages our costs over the year to avoid billing surprises.  State utility regulators and energy advocates look out for our interests without our active involvement.

We have the luxury of doing nothing other than going about our daily lives. But the inconvenient truth is that ‘business as usual’ approach at home is not going to reduce energy demand or cut emissions.

I’m doing my part, you say!

AC Nielsen recently released a survey called Energy Trends: Highlights on Consumer Energy Usage[1] asking more than 32,000 consumers about their energy use and behaviors.  The study found that most of us continue to be passive energy consumers.  According to the survey the most proactive action we have taken in 2008 is that 71% of those surveyed have at least one compact florescent light bulb in their homes.  Given the emphasis on environmental issues in schools and the media, it was surprising that the greatest CFL users were customers with higher incomes and education levels.  Customers 55 and older scored better on CFL use (74%) than 18-34 year olds (64%).  Households making more than $100,000 per year scored 76% versus 61% for those making less than $35k. Similarly, home owners score better than renters (74% vs 59%); college graduates score better on CFL use than high school graduates (74% vs 63%).

On this point I am true to type.  Given my income and education levels I have more than met my quota for CFLs installed in my home.  As a parent I have also been trained to use them because my children never met a light bulb they liked “off”!

OK, OK I have a confession!  I use CFLs mostly because PG&E deeply subsidizes them and I can buy a big box of them at COSTCO dirt cheap.  Bribery works!

But it is going to take more than popping in a CFL to reduce emissions and moderate energy demand for the future.  But demand side management programs are poorly utilized across the country according to the survey.  Only 5% of customers surveyed monitor energy consumption or use in 2008 compared to 4% doing so in 2006.  This is not a groundswell of support.  Why?

Monitoring appliance energy use is a pain in the neck for most of us.  We lack the sensors and energy information management tools to gather, organize, and analyze the information.  And even if we could easily get it, so what?  Most of us are still paying average rates.  I can buy all this gear and install it myself—but why go to all this hassle so I save PG&E money?  Today my incentive is to go out to the garage get myself a ‘cold brew’ and plop my fanny on the family room sofa and watch the baseball game.

Here I am also true to type, as we have replaced appliances and especially our HVAC system we have bought Energy Star appliances even if they cost a little bit more because of the long term energy savings.  Yes there were also rebates for many of them from PG&E as well so I did well by doing good once again.  The problem is, according to Nielsen, is that market penetration rates for Energy Star appliances are flat for 2008 over 2007.  This could be the precursor effects of the economic slow down and then recession as appliance sales fell off —or appliance efficiency has reached a plateau. Either way, the Waxman-Markey Bill has a surprise awaiting you.  One of the not oft discussed provisions is a requirement to bring your home up to the Federal efficiency code standards before you can sell it.  Surprise!

If we expect to realize gains from energy efficiency, demand response and reduce greenhouse emissions we will clearly need more demand response than the Nielsen survey tells us we’re getting.

Let’s make a deal!  I’ll give up my beer refrigerator in the garage when you do, but not a baseball game sooner.