On the Language of Saving Energy: In Defense of Energy Efficiency.

David FentonLast week David Fenton, an icon of the progressive communications world, gave a talk at the Department of Energy entitled “The Language of Saving Energy.” The arc of the speech was that we need to change the way we talk about home energy efficiency, an argument supported by two key premises. First: in order to spur broad utilization of home energy efficiency programs and incentives, we need to start using language that speaks to the core values of all Americans, and not just to “true believers” or industry insiders. The second: we need to bear in mind the power of repetition as a branding device. We need to settle on a set of terms that speak to Americans’ core values, and we need to drive them to the point that they penetrate our collective subconscious and become part of our everyday lexicon. We need to be more like the right--encapsulating big issues into sound bites like “death panels” and “clean coal.” Only then will we get to the point where we need to be as an industry.

Both very strong, very poignant arguments. We’ve repeatedly visited the problem of branding and language in the energy sector, and acknowledge that settling on a set of powerful, simple terms will be key to energy efficiency achieving real market penetration. What was disappointing about the speech was that an icon like David Fenton fell into doing what too many of us are doing these days: talking about what’s wrong, shooting holes without acknowledging what’s being done right, and not proposing concrete, serious alternatives.

Fenton’s is a long (and thoughtful) piece that’s well worth a read, but here’s a summary of the terms he doesn’t like, and why:

  • Energy efficiency: “Cold, heartless, unemotional.”
  • PACE: “I’m asleep already.”
  • Retrofit: “Retro isn’t looking forward.”
  • Green Collar Jobs: “Men don’t want to wear green collars.”
  • Green homes: “The guys will not go for this one.”
  • Climate: “Only for true believers.”

He also falls victim to the ad agency love of the campaign. He’s very proud, justifiably, of their own work: “What would Jesus Drive?” and “Give a Swordfish a Break,” but fails to recognize the industry’s need to describe itself on a more fundamental level. After all, long before the “What would Jesus drive?” campaign, the term “hybrid” was settled upon by industry insiders.

In particular, I think he’s wrong on energy efficiency. There is broad evidence that energy efficiency, both as a term and as a concept, is working. People hate waste; and, especially in these economic times, the idea of saving money every month is one that most of us, true believers or not, can get behind. A Reuters piece this week, Energy efficiency is new green for US homebuilders, describes how major players in the production homes industry are adopting energy efficient features as a competitive advantage over the re-sale market. This is the market speaking, seizing on the trend that buyers today are become more cognizant of a home’s operating cost.

On a more fundamental level, we’d suggest that energy efficiency is more consistent with core American values than Fenton would have it. He allows that it’s a business term (“It’s a beautiful concept to engineers...”), while suggesting that that’s not something most Americans can identify with. We respond: Americans are business people. We’re engineers. We’re industrious, self-reliant, innovative and thrifty. Energy efficiency reflects these values beautifully, without nonsense, without moral or emotional hocus pocus. His references to George Mason University Professor Ed Maibach’s social marketing research seems spot on for energy efficiency--that people change behavior based on functional (I’m saving money), self-expressive (I’m doing my part) and self-evaluative (this is the right thing) benefits. For these reasons, we’d say, the term can, and should, stick around a while; and it’s one that we should all rally behind without reservation. For our part, we’ll continue to use it, and continue to use it, and continue to use it, until we get the job done.

And, most importantly, let’s all commit ourselves to finding POSITIVE solutions. The terminology and language of our industry is fair game, of course, but be mindful of the cumulative effect of all this negativity. The topics of energy and climate are sufficiently complex. We face enough hurdles. No more term bashing without constructive alternatives. OK?


No bashing without constructive alternatives. I really like that. Taken a step further, Constructive alternatives can often be offered without bashing, as BETTER choices.

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Peter Troast's picture

 Thanks Ted. I might be channeling childhood memories of my mother--"if you can't say something nice...." but I really think it's time for us all to start seeing the glass as half full.

I've often pointed out the dynamic of
energy use is the USA is ; its purchased-
Whether kWfs, thems. batteries- then it's
wasted - then repurchased ! When people
learn to skip that 2nd part - we'll all be
in better shape!

I think it will be easier if we take the emotion out of the argument and simply show people the math and return on investment. It really can be shown that energy efficiency is a smart, logical, rational decision to make.

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