Hearts and Minds

A few weeks ago I blogged about the “efficiency vs. renewables” dictum — that is, the commonly held wisdom that, practically speaking energy efficiency comes first, renewables second. Whether you’re a homeowner, business owner, or government, investing in renewables only makes sense if you’ve first done everything possible to use energy derived from all sources–fossil and renewable–more efficiently.

In that post I mentioned that my friend Alex Jarvis, a solar installer in Bloomington, IN, challenged that logic, claiming that in his experience, investing in renewables can often act as a catalyst to greater energy efficiency. To see what other energy experts thought, I recently spoke with Penni Mclean-Conner, vice president of customer care for NSTAR–a Massachusetts-based gas and electric utility–and author of Energy Efficiency: Principles and Practices.  Here’s what she had to say …

It’s crucial, she said, that state and local governments push energy efficiency-based plans to reduce out carbon footprint. “But I don’t think that at all precludes the rapid development of renewable technologies or should discourage customers from investing in both efficiency and alternative energy technologies simultaneously,” she said. “I’m excited by whatever motivates customers.”

I think that’s an important point. One of the central challenges in dealing with climate change, energy security, and pollution is getting people to care enough about these issues to actually do something about them. Yes, it’s an unassailable fact that energy efficiency is, well, the most efficient and economical means of using energy wisely. (It’s no surprise, after all, that the ongoing Empire State Building sustainable retrofit involves replacing most of the existing windows with more energy efficient windows but does not include solar panels or rooftop-mounted wind turbines.) 

 But motivation matters, too. The global effort to change the way we make and consume energy is in large part a struggle for hearts and minds. Because, for all sorts of reasons, the inconvenient truths of climate change, rising energy prices, and dwindling stores of easily accessible fossil fuels are not necessarily self-evident. Unless you’re already a committed environmentalist, climate change activist, or renewable energy advocate, it’s easy to ignore or remain willfully ignorant of the facts because there are other, more immediately pressing things to worry about (like the global financial meltdown). So part of the task is making these facts evident, making visible the ways in which energy is made, the ways in which energy is consumed, and the ways in which energy matters.

Which is why, finally, I’m with McLean-Connor. Whatever motivates people to be conscious of energy, whether it’s the common-sense logic and economic propriety of energy efficiency or the razzle-dazzle of exciting renewable energy technologies–both matter. We need to think beyond the rigid hierarchy of “efficiency first, renewables second” and recognize how they work together as part of the new energy story.

You can check out more of my thoughts and writing about renewable energy and about my book-in-progress, Renewable, at www.renewablebook.com.


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I'm a writer based in Bloomington, IN. I'm currently writing a book about renewable energy, titled "Renewable: A Reporter's Quest to Make Sense of the Coming Revolution in Alternative Energy," for St. Martin's Press.

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