By Melissa von Mayrhauser
Cutting energy use in a home or small business can save consumers plenty of money, so why aren’t more private citizens doing it?
In part, the information needed to make those changes isn’t always readily visible or available. That’s one of the barriers to progress on energy efficiency outlined by speakers at a panel discussion on “Energy Efficiency in the New York City Region” sponsored by The Earth Institute Feb. 16.
“Why isn’t it front page news? It’s the boring stuff,” Michael Winka, director of the New Jersey Clean Energy program, said. “The front-page news is the solar that I put on my roof, and the ribbon cutting for that new technology. … If you can figure out how to make a ribbon-cutting for a boiler sexy, we would love that.”
Gathered at Columbia’s Shapiro Center, Winka and co-panelists Jill Anderson of the New York Power Authority, Rebecca Craft of Consolidated Edison Co. of New York, John Williams of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and Luke Falk of The Related Companies, real estate developers, discussed why more individuals are not embracing energy efficiency changes and how energy agencies could increase access to information.
“I think our energy use is invisible,” Williams said. “And frankly people don’t always care. … How do you make that invisible somewhat more visible? How do you raise the cognizance, the awareness of the public generally?”
Falk spoke about the importance of providing universal access to data so that individuals would be able to seek out information easily without incentives.
“Before people had Internet, they liked to read the encyclopedia, and then after it was invented, they spontaneously wanted to write it for free on Wikipedia,” Falk said. “And it’s that sort of changing the dynamic, either through change in the information, [or] access to data, will be the thing that helps us get there.”
The panelists also discussed the need to make incentive packages more attractive to consumers and to drive prices down for expensive types of technology. They also considered higher public funding and tougher energy codes as important steps toward energy efficiency.
Despite the concern among panelists about a lack of a desire among individuals to change their energy habits, they also recounted success stories.
Craft, director of energy efficiency programs for Consolidated Edison, cited Mrs. Maxwell’s Bakery in Brooklyn, which cut its electric bills by shifting to more energy-efficient lighting, particularly for their display cases.
“Here is an example of a small company, many, many generations in New York, successful in a neighborhood,” Craft said. “They took the plunge, it was worth the investment, we gave them a big incentive, and they have a much lower electricity bill, and they have display cases that look great.”
Jill Anderson shared a story of energy efficiency success on a larger scale. She said that New York is making changes that reflect how forward-looking it is regarding energy efficiency.
“Just last month, the governor announced an initiative for public buildings to master-plan energy efficiency … with the objective to spend $500 million over the next four years,” Anderson said. “It’s really trying to look at what are the smart investments.”
Audience members, including sustainable development students, thought that the panel discussion complemented their course work.
“I thought it was nice that they all seemed to have a common message of making data accessible to the user,” said Alyssa Zucker, a student in the Earth Institute’s masters of public administration-environmental science and policy program. “I’m working on a project about that, about encouraging energy efficient on an individual level.”
Other audience members appreciated the panelists’ discussion of local energy use and barriers to participation.
“I was interested in the concept of shifting people’s approach to the way they look at efficiency on a small-scale level, in their homes or in their businesses,” Jessica Miller of the Earth Institute said. “But when it comes down to it, the hold-up to implementing these technologies is people’s resistance to change. I’m interested in exploring that more.”
For more information:
US Department of Energy: Tips for saving energy at home
The federal Energy Star program site: Learn about energy efficient products and practices
National Geographic: Energy efficiency check-list
Melissa von Mayrhauser is an intern at the Earth Institute and an undergraduate student at Columbia College.