Recently, I had an interview with Wally McGuire, Director of California’s Flex Your Power, a conservation and energy efficiency campaign. We discussed the state of the environment, the importance of social marketing, and the future of energy efficiency. McGuire has had a career peppered with public awareness building and campaign development, from coordinating overseas and domestic trips in the Carter White House to acting as national Field Director for Earth Day 1990 .
In addition, he is President of McGuire & Co., Inc., a public affairs firm, and President of the Environmental Policy Center, a nonprofit organization. He has also managed and trained in event mobilization for Hands Across America, two Olympic Torch Runs, and the Pope’s trip to the United States [amended from a full biography in Ecospeakers.com].
We discussed the impact of the Flex Your Power campaign and the guiding principles that underpin its charter. The campaign helped to transform the market and put the power, literally, back into California residents’ hands; its creation was spurred by the blackouts that threatened California in the early 2000′s. Those blackouts occurred in large part because of a shortage of electricity from utility providers paired with heavy usage of electricity from homeowners and businesses. They happened during hot summer days and were hard on the elderly and the young who are more susceptible to extreme heat conditions. It also effected the productivity of many businesses around the state, especially those highly dependent on electricity usage. Furthermore, some energy companies, such as Enron, took advantage of the crisis and sold power at exorbitant prices. In the aftermath, new regulations and consumer awareness efforts were put into place in hopes of avoiding such a crisis in the future. Flex Your Power was one of those consumer awareness efforts.
Evaluating the effectiveness of large public awareness and education campaigns is a challenging undertaking. It is difficult to get a handle on how an effort that focuses on messaging and advertising truly changes consumer attitudes, actions, and energy savings. Many diverging opinions exist in the Measurement and Evaluation community about how to quantify the relative effectiveness of big consumer campaigns. However, Opinion Dynamics, a consulting firm specializing in marketing research, published a positive assessment of Flex Your Power’s relative success given the challenges of measuring and evaluating large outreach campaigns.
Based on my own non-scientific analysis, when looking at the big picture, over the last decade, California has made some significant strides towards increased energy efficiency. The state has managed to avoid further widespread blackouts thus far and has become the second most energy efficient state in the U.S. Its energy efficiency programs, which are run by the utilities and mandated and overseen by the California Public Utilities Commission, reach for higher energy savings targets and are the model for many other states. However, it is still difficult to directly attribute any of these outcomes to the Flex Your Power campaign. Regardless of the way you quantify success, campaigns such as these seem to have an inherent benefit because of the effort they exert to increase public awareness around energy and environmental causes.
McGuire: The campaign has sought to build awareness around the benefits of conservation and energy efficiency among all major sectors of the economy, including residential, commercial, industrial, governmental and agricultural. The campaign’s objective is to increase the propensity of all Californians to conserve and purchase energy efficient products by providing motivation and practical advice about how each sector can take control of their energy usage to save energy, the environment and money.
The campaign was created to prevent blackouts during the 2001-2002 California Energy Crisis. In the beginning, the campaign was funded by the State and focused on conservation and load shifting rather than energy efficiency. The next eight years after the program’s inception have been funded through a public benefits charge collected by the utilities. Each year, evaluations have been conducted to monitor awareness and propensity of efficiency and conservation behavior, which has shown to be growing. The Flex Your Power website offers collateral and education pieces designed to target each of these sectors, including rebate finders, product guides, savings tips, and best practice guides, for starters.
McGuire: There are a lot of ways people behave and different sectors often have very different perspectives. In order to work together, we need to have a sense of these perspectives and understand each sector’s agenda. We all have an obligation to help build a sustainable future, no matter the sector. Each group listens to different messengers and responds to different drivers. We often don’t think about all the tools we have or how we can use them to better communicate with each other. For instance, some of the tools governments can use include creating mandates, such as Title 24 in California, prohibiting actions, creating incentives and disincentives, or building education and awareness campaigns, like Flex Your Power. Governments at all levels need to use each of these tools thoughtfully to create comprehensive policy and build relationships with the public.
McGuire: Businesses used to assign energy and environmental issues to the legal or PR departments. Now we see energy efficiency, sustainability, and climate change as real issues of national policy and corporate responsibility. However, it’s important to also be aware that we may be making long term mistakes. For instance, as we build out the “so called” Smart Grid, we can create disincentives for small distributed generation [i.e. small scale technologies that provide power near the point of use such as solar or wind systems]. We are rushing to find solutions through new mechanisms and new technologies. It’s easy to get blinded by thinking the jobs and opportunities are on the generation (alternative) side, rather than on the demand side (efficiency). For example, more straightforward activities such as spurring green building retrofits [i.e. replacing old, inefficient or non-environmentally friendly aspects of existing homes with "green" features, such as upgrading to efficient windows, improving insulation, or installing solar panels] can create many green collar jobs. These types of activities can sometimes be a more lucrative opportunities than the more “advanced” savings mechanisms. Government and businesses need to better prioritize the dollars spent and make a conscious effort to look at the big picture.
McGuire: Getting people motivated is of central importance. For example, the Flex Your Power website has background about the financial and environmental reasons behind why one should take action. It also has tips on how to change consumer behavior in terms of how we go about our daily usage of heating, cooling, electronics, lighting, other household appliances, and the largest use of electricity in California, water.
O’Donnell: What is the importance of social movements (grassroots activism) in today’s society?
McGuire: Social movements are a central part of a successful society. If a relatively small percentage of people change their behavior, the market will respond. For example, if even ten percent of homeowners were to decide to buy a high efficiency water heater or furnace, most manufacturers or suppliers will sit up and take notice. They may ramp up production of the more efficient models, increase marketing efforts for high efficiency, and perhaps even work with state efficiency programs or big box retailers to get those technologies into peoples’ homes.
O’Donnell: When there are so many pressing issues to be concerned with, why should efficiency and the environment continue to remain such an important national and individual focus?
McGuire: Everything is connected. We can no longer afford to look at things as free-standing issues. Health has a large environmental component. Wars have a large resource component. We got through the energy crisis, which was a major economic crisis, by reducing demand and saving hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. The success of long term development for the economy hinges on making smart decisions about the environment and resource efficiency. Climate change will alter economies and politics for the foreseeable future. Many of the pressing issues of our time are connected to energy and the environment, and it’s key to our sustainability that we get a better understanding of just how closely each of these systems are connected.
Flex Your Power, as stated on their site, is California’s statewide energy efficiency marketing and outreach campaign. Initiated in 2001, Flex Your Power is a partnership of California’s utilities, residents, businesses, institutions, government agencies and nonprofit organizations working to save energy. Flex Your Power has received national and international recognition, including an ENERGY STAR Award for excellence. The campaign’s funding comes from the Public Goods Charge as approved by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).